In Guatemala, Talk About Sex Still Taboo for Parents, Kids as Teen Pregnancies Soar

Access to contraceptives is limited in rural Guatemala, and stereotypes of young mothers persist. And when young mothers drop out of school, they often continue a cycle of poverty.

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In Guatemala, Talk About Sex Still Taboo  for Parents, Kids as Teen Pregnancies Soar

Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

Elena Lopic Bocel was pregnant with her first child at age 14. Now, a year later, she has had to abandon her studies in order to work and take care of her newborn child. She says she hopes to return to school.

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CONCEPCIÓN, GUATEMALA — Elena Lopic Bocel, 15, dries her tears with the sleeves of her sweater. She fights to stop crying as she remembers what her family told her when she became pregnant.

“They advised me to have an abortion, and I didn’t want to do it,” she says. “They told me I could give the baby away after it’s born, and that is something I didn’t want to do. It’s not the baby’s fault.”

Her mother warned her two years before to stay away from men to avoid getting pregnant, Elena says. and her mother was upset when she found out about Elena’s boyfriend.

“When my mom knew I was with him, she hit me very hard,” she says.

Elena, who lives in Concepción, a municipality in the southwestern department of Sololá, got pregnant at 14 years old in January 2015, about 18 months after she began dating her boyfriend. They didn’t use contraception, she says.

“Now I regret it, but I can’t do anything about it,” she says.

Guatemala had an increase of more than 50 percent in recorded pregnancies among 10- to 19-year-olds between January 2010 to August 2015, according to that country’s Observatorio en Salud Reproductiva, an organization that monitors implementation of the country’s reproductive health policies. January 2010 was when Guatemalan authorities began recording all births, experts say.

In the first eight months of 2015, 68,829 women and girls ages 10 to 19 were pregnant, according to the reproductive health observatory.

Of about 16 million girls aged 15 to 19, about 1 million under 15 give birth every year, according to the World Health Organization. Births among 15- to 19-year-olds represent 11 percent of births worldwide. The proportion of births that take place during adolescence is 18 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Guatemalan authorities didn’t know how many teens were getting pregnant until about five years ago, says Nydia Valeska Castillo Rivera, a doctor at the Centro de Atención Permanente, a government health center in Panajachel, a municipality in the Sololá department. Keeping better birth records was part of Guatemala’s effort to meet the Millennium Development Goals ─ targets the U.N. set in 2000 to address various issues, including improving maternal health and access to reproductive health, she says.

“In our time, we did not go out to the street alone with boys; we would get married with the man that our parents chose,” she says. “Now, young people have more liberty, and look at what happens.”

Many parents are not open to talking about sex with their children, or in general, because of their traditional values, says José Leonardo Buch Martin, director of a primary school and vice director of a secondary school in Panajachel.

Buch Martin says he has experienced a lot of resistance from parents when his schools tried to institute sex education programs, despite the fact that those programs are part of the schools’ curriculum requirements.

“Some parents do appreciate that we give these subjects,” he says. “However, there are others who take offense because it is a taboo subject.”

Buch Martin says parents tell him that talking to teenagers about sex awakens their curiosity about the subject and will cause them to experiment.

Elena says she wanted to talk to an adult about sex after she first experienced it, but she felt that, though she was learning about sex at school, her teachers weren’t available to speak with her about it privately.

“I feel embarrassed to enter the health center and ask for birth control,” he says.

González García could buy condoms at the pharmacy, but says he is equally embarrassed to do that. And there’s another problem ─ he says he can’t afford to buy condoms, which cost on average 20 Guatemalan quetzales ($2.60) for a packet of three, on his 1,000 quetzales ($131) monthly salary.

Castillo Rivera says that boys and girls under 18 can receive free birth control at the local health center, but there is one condition: They must be accompanied by an adult — a parent ─ to ensure there’s no perception that teachers or any other adults are encouraging students to have sex.

Young single mothers and pregnant teenagers are isolated and are frowned upon in Guatemalan culture, says Odilia Pablo, an official with the reproductive health observatory.

Reyna Estela Martin Sicajau, 22, agrees. She is a single mother from Caserío Monte Mercedes, an area within the Canton Sacsiguán hamlet, who got pregnant at 19. Her boyfriend left her soon after she became pregnant, so she dropped out of school to work. People looked down on her, she says.

“When they see me walking to work, they tell me I’m going out to look for men,” said Martin Sicajau in a telephone interview, referring to people in her community.

And those young mothers struggle to find future partners.

José Luis Cúmez Batz, 18, from the municipality of San Andrés Semetabaj, says he would never marry a single mother because it would be too much responsibility. He would judge her, he says, and wonder if something was wrong with her, because the father of the child didn’t want to stay with her.

González García, the 22-year-old who admits that he is sexually active but doesn’t use protection, says women should remain virgins until marriage.

Men don’t want to be with women who are obviously not virgins, he says.

Norma Baján Balán, GPJ, translated an interview from Kaqchikel.
Natalia Aldana, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.