Girls Interrupted

Today is World Contraception Day. In Venezuela, the staggering rate of teenage pregnancy is a very real public health issue, and also a social problem.

A woman carrying a bulky package of pink blankets stands in a corner. It’s obvious she’s not skilled at carrying babies. The heavy pañalera hangs from her bony shoulder, as if filled with rocks. When I finally approach, I see her worried and painfully young face – maybe 14. She’s all by herself, with her baby in her arms. One girl carrying another.  

I’ve spotted very young moms escorted by very young dads who, for some reason, seem always in charge of the pañaleras. And young moms accompanied by their also young moms, looking for diapers, baby formula, or medicines for babies. It’s not rare in Venezuela’s small towns and in urban barrios to find grandmothers in their 30s.

Teenage pregnancy in Venezuela is so pervasive that it’s one of the few issues (together with maternal mortality) the Maduro regime has recognized as a serious social challenge. Figures from the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica indicate that 22.2% of all births in 2012 came from adolescents under 20. UNFPA’s 2014 edition of the State of the World Population Report registered Venezuela with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the region. The 2016 version places it third, only after Bolivia and Honduras, still well above regional and world averages.

Walking around Caracas, particularly in low and medium income neighborhoods, these figures are very palpable, and while the majority of pregnancies occur among 15 and 17 year old teenagers, the number of girls between 10 and 12 giving birth has been increasing.

UNFPA’s 2014 edition of the State of the World Population Report registered Venezuela with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the region.

Behind these figures there are all sorts of situations that go from from lack of information and peer pressure, to violence, neglect and sexual abuse. In certain socio-economic contexts, becoming a mother is kind of a rite of passage for teenage girls, as they “finally become” women.

So, in a society where the main expectation for women is to be mothers (something systematically reinforced by Maduro’s brand of “feminism”), becoming one seems to grant these girls some sort of social existence. That this could be culturally tolerable in some circles doesn’t make it right. On the contrary, this kind of moral relativism stands in the way of girls’ proper development and opportunities.

Having kids at a young age decreases the chances of getting an education and better paid jobs later in life. In fact, teenage pregnancy is considered a mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of poverty. Official reports indicate that 7 out of 10 teenage girls dropped out of school due to pregnancy, a vast majority from poor households. So teenage pregnancy, while a public health issue, is also a social problem.

Now, zoom into Venezuela’s severe contraceptive shortages (it stands at a staggering 90%), lack of sexual and reproductive health services for teenagers in the context of a failing public health system, and one of the region’s most restrictive frameworks on abortion, and there’s a certain possibility that teenage pregnancy is far bigger than what we’ve discussed here. The future of these girls is at stake, facing a life-long expectation of poverty and hardship.

The regime’s answer is not different from its response to everything else: quiet inaction. So maybe it’s time to do the one thing we should have done as a society, ever since this issue was first noticed in those days of la cuarta:

We should care.