Teenage pregnancy is a multiplier of poverty and vulnerability
TEXT: RAMÓN OLIVER PHOTOGRAPH: ALBERTO CARRASCO
According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately one million girls under the age of 15 give birth each year in the world, most of them in lowand middle-income countries. This problem is entrenched in Colombian society and drives thousands of young people into social exclusion. It is a vicious circle in which extreme poverty is both a trigger and a consequence. Catalina Escobar, winner of the Fundación MAPFRE Award for Best Social Impact Project for her “360° Social Development Model” is helping to break this dynamic by giving these young mothers an opportunity to get an education and fight for their futures as well as those of their children.
How did the 360° Model project come about?
In 2001, I suffered the very personal loss of my son Juan Felipe. My son took me on a journey into the hearts of others, the most needy and vulnerable, and that same year I set up Fundación Juanfe, committed to working for other people and towards the challenge of lowering the city’s infant mortality rate. In seven years we managed to reduce this rate by 81% without a single public policy. But it also took us those seven years to understand that the problem of infant mortality in Cartagena went much further, and that it stemmed from teenage pregnancy. That is why we set up the 360º model, which works with teenage mothers in situations of vulnerability and extreme poverty in two cities in Colombia (Cartagena and Medellin), as well as in Chile and Panama, under the social franchise model.
How big is this problem in Colombia?
In Colombia there is no clear and coherent public policy on teenage pregnancy. Local efforts have been made by some governments in terms of prevention issues, but not the care of these young women.
What does your model consist of?
We focus our attention on teenage mothers between the ages of 16 and 19. To enter the program they must go through a selection process, which is critical to the success of the program. It ensures that these young women can participate for the two years that the program lasts, graduate in a technical field and obtain the necessary training to perform in the productive sectors in which they will be working when they finish.
How does it work?
Juanfe’s 360-degree model has three essential components: the psychosocial healing of adolescent girls from the depths of their hearts. It is this element that makes the results of the model sustainable over time, and ends in the young women being empowered and acquiring emotional and social tools; education, so that they can study a technical career and graduate while they are in the program; and inclusion in the workplace. In this regard, we work with the private sector, a very important player in terms of responsible employment. In this year alone we have reached more than 10,000 people in this way.
What kind of help do you give them?
The main help we provide is access to decent skills and opportunities that enable the women to be financially self-sufficient, allowing them and their children to change their behavior and the repetitive patterns of vulnerability in their families.
What options do these young women have once they give birth?
In the circumstances of exclusion and limited opportunities in which they live, they do not have many options: more than 80% of them abandon their studies forever and are forced to seek informal income to support their children. This leaves them open to continued situations of violence and abuse, and what is even worse, these limited opportunities are also passed on to their children.
Are these pregnancies the symptom of a greater evil?
Yes, they are indeed. They are the result of a lack of public policies to address the problem of teenage pregnancy in Colombia. In 2018, the cost to society and the State of not preventing teenage pregnancy and early motherhood was 5.1 trillion pesos ($1.2 trillion), the equivalent of 0.56% of the Gross Domestic Product-GDP, according to a study by the United Nations Population Fund.
What other ramifications do they have?
Women who have their first child before the age of 20 suffer financial and social disadvantages, as well as health issues such as increased maternal morbidity and mortality, the predominance of low birth weight and, obviously, a lower quality of life for both the woman and the newborn.
How can these pregnancies be avoided?
We have to work on prevention, sexual and reproductive health and sex education for our young people, and have a care plan in place for this vulnerable segment of the population.