Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region of the world where the fertility rate of adolescents has gone up over the last 30 years, as manifested in Colombia’s and Brazil’s alarming increases in teenage pregnancy. This trend reflects Colombia’s silent social catastrophe.
Colombian leaders of public opinion forecast that in 2010 the most important issues will be: the presidential elections (45%), the re-election referendum (21%), parliamentary elections (5.5%), U.S. military bases (5%), para-politics (2%) and humanitarian agreement with the FARC (2%). Unfortunately there is a more serious social problem that is seldom addressed and whose consequences for the medium and long-term stability of the country are dire: adolescent pregnancy.
A recent report from the Ibero-American Youth Organization showed that for every 1,000 pregnancies in the region 73.1 occur among adolescents (15 to 19 year-olds); by comparison the world and European rates are 48.6 and 28.9 respectively. In 1986, Colombia’s adolescent fertility rate was similar to Latin America’s current average rate. By 2005, however, it had grown to 90 per every 1,000 pregnancies.
Despite a decrease in Colombia’s overall fertility rate, there is a significant increase in pregnancies among adolescents. In 1986, 13.6% of pregnancies were among adolescents; in 2005, it was 20.5% or one in five. Among the displaced population 30% of pregnancies are those of adolescents. But the situation of 10 to 14-years-old is even more alarming. In 2007, there were 20,000 births in Bogota, of which 500 occurred among this age group.
Colombia’s increase in teenage pregnancies may be explained by the early sexual activity of female adolescents. For instance, in 1986, 4.3% of adolescents had had their first sexual relations before the age of 15, but in 2005, the percentage reached 13.7. In 1986, 79.8% of female adolescents remained virgins, while in 2005 only 56.2% were “chaste” – this may explain Colombia’s frenzy when the image of a virgin appears on any conceivable object.
What makes this trend demographically and hence socially, economically and politically catastrophic is that most teenage pregnancies occur among the poorest sectors in society. In 2005, 31.5% of adolescent mothers belonged to the poorest 20% of society, compared to the 10.7% of adolescent mothers that belonged to the richest 20%. Moreover, 50.7% of adolescents belonging to the poorest 20% had married, while only 9.6% of adolescents in the richest 20% had tied the knot.
These figures may indicate that teenage pregnancy becomes a more serious problem when there are no economic resources and social support to bring up the child. In the richest sectors of society, the future of adolescent parents may not be nearly as negatively affected.
Poverty and adolescent pregnancy are intrinsically interrelated in a vicious circle. Poverty is an important factor contributing to the high rate of teenage pregnancy. But adolescence pregnancy also perpetuates poverty; the poverty that is at the root of just about every single political, economic and social ailment that the country has ever experienced.
These statistics hide the real human tragedy being conceived before the eyes of the Colombian population, but which remains unseen and unspoken about. Let’s take the representative case of Carla.
Carla is 16-year-old who lives in a poor sector of a town near Bogota with her mother and six siblings. Carla has one year left before finishing secondary school, and her boyfriend is a 17-year-old electrician who gave up school two years earlier. Carla had only had two sex education lessons, and knew of contraceptives but never dared to talk to her boyfriend about them. And when she spoke about the risk of becoming pregnant, he just said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take responsibility.”
When Carla missed her period, she was scared to talk to her mother, whose religiosity defined sex as immoral. A cousin, Carla’s only support, took her to the doctor, who confirmed the pregnancy. Soon after, two brothers had impregnated their girlfriends, also adolescents. Yet none of them has plans to move out of the house.
Carla found the strength to tell her mother about the pregnancy. The response was surprising. Her mother wept but told her to go ahead and have the baby. Carla’s mother had herself been a teenage single mother.
Abortion never crossed Carla’s mind. Her friends are going out dancing, but she is not disturbed. She is determined to have the baby, “I’ll have the baby and do whatever it takes to provide for my child.”