Exclusion and poverty: the cost of being a teenage mother in Nicaragua
Teenage mothers are forced to abandon the education
The most difficult thing about being a teenage mother in Nicaragua is having to take on all the responsibilities of maternity on your own, alongside the stigmatization meted out to women becoming pregnant at a young age, says “Wendy”, a young woman of 20 years old who had a child 17. When she discovered she was pregnant she had to put up with six months running commentary by her Dad scolding her for her pregnancy and at the same time the comments of neighbours judging her.
“People think that if you have a child at 17, you’ve ruined your life. For me being a mother was a shock because I thought I’d not done anything with my life. When my Dad came home drunk he told me I’d fallen from the pedestal he’d had me on. That really affected me. I’d put my foot in it so what was I supposed to do about it? I also had to put up with the comments of people in the neighbourhood. I had been the quiet one, the one who never went our, the one who went to church and suddenly I’m pregnant” Wendy tells us.
At home, Wendy’s parents are Baptist Christians and any topic related to sexuality was forbidden. “Those things weren’t supposed to be talked about”, she says. Because of this she lacked information on sex education. In her secondary school they also didn’t teach about these topics and she had no-one to fall back on to clarify her doubts, so she informed herself via the Internet. However, she still didn’t understand how contraceptive methods worked or how to use condoms correctly.
On several occasions in 2018 she had sex without protective measures “and I had no problems”, nevertheless on one of those occasions she decided to take emergency hormonal contraceptive pills “just in case”, but she is sure she didn’t take them correctly. After this, her following period didn’t happen. The pregnancy test she took came out positive.
She was 17 and so was the boy who got her pregnant. She’d already finished secondary school, she was studying advanced English and in 2019 was to begin university studies in Tourism, but all of her plans had to be postponed with the pregnancy. She thought about having an abortion, but the fact that it would have to be clandestine and the fear of medical complications held her back. It was a month after discovering she was pregnant that she finally told her family.
From then on she suffered from «social punishment» that she underwent on her own, because the young man who got her pregnant didn’t assume any responsibility for his paternity. Wendy tells us that most nights she had guilty thoughts “for having ruined my life”, regretting not having had the abortion when she could have, still shocked and incredulous that she was going to be a mother and be responsible for a baby. The comments of her father and the people around her only made her feel worse.
In only four years in Nicaragua, between 2015 and 2019, at least 170,205 girls and teenagers between 10 and 19 years old became mothers. Thisrepresents 24.5% of pregnancies on a national level, according to the reports of the ‘Compendium for Vital Statistics’ of the National Institute for Development Information (Instituto Nacional de Información de Desarrollo – INIDE).
“María José”, a social worker and member of the Nicaraguan Feminist Movement, who asked to remain anonymous due to persecution from the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship, explained that pregnancy in girls and teenagers is on of the most dramatic situations being experienced by women in the country, since Nicaragua has one of the highest levels of these pregnancies in the region and it is one of the main reasons behind women’s precarious economic conditions.
“25% of pregnancies in Nicaragua are among teenagers. This is a really alarmingfigure, as we’re talking about a population of 6.5 million people of whom 51% are women, and considering not all of these women have reproductive capacity the percentage of teen pregnancies is really high”, Maria Jose affirms.
The main impact of underage maternity of is the social exclusion these teenagers face, since many of them are expelled from school or are forced to abandon their studies to take care of their newborn child. As a consequence they are later excluded from the workforce, and this means they either become submersed in the informal economy in order to survive or they end up completely dependant on someone else which could be their family or the man who caused the pregnancy. This situation often leads to them becoming trapped as victims of domestic violence.
“The impact is obvious, it perpetuates the cycle of poverty because most don’t have the conditions enabling them to experience maternity in an alternative way, which would be to have a job, a place to live, a stable relationship, the necessary levels of education. These conditions aren’t available yet to a teenager”, the gender specialist explains.
According to the 2019 results of the ‘Homes Survey for Measuring Poverty’ carried out by the International Foundation of the Global Economic Challenge (Fundación Internacional para el Desafío Económico Global – FIDEG), 43.4% of Nicaragua women live in general poverty and 8.9% in extreme poverty. These statistics are more intense in rural areas where the majority of teenage pregnancies occur. Wendy assures that if she hadn’t studied English she doesn’t know where she would be. A year after having given birth she began to teach classes at a primary school in Tipitapa, which enabled her to earn a salary to cover the basic needs of her child. “But if I hadn’t studied English before, where would I be? I’d be working in a maquila sweatshop factory or something similar”, she says.
Maria José indicates that on top of being excluded, teen mothers also have to face society’s double standards. Nicaraguan society demands that women take on their maternity as a social mandate, independently of their age and socioeconomic conditions. At the same time they are not given sufficient resources or education to avoid unwanted pregnancies when this is considered to be immoral.
“A teenage pregnancy happens because we have a violent society where men and boys pressure girls to have sex with them. In our childhood and teenage years we have very little access to integrated sex education and most are in precarious economic situations. This means girls and young women often find themselves in their first sexual relationship before they are ready. It also means they are unable to negotiate the use of a condom and contraception, because they don’t even have the basic information enabling them to demand their use”, she explains.
According to María José, he Nicaraguan State promotes the idea of a “rosy maternity” as the destiny of all women, at the same time as it limits the options for teenage girls not to become pregnant, due to the lack of sex education and access to contraception, and those who do use them are criticised.
While girls face social stigma alone, this doesn’t happen to teenage boys who become fathers. Society does not demand they take on their paternity, and they are not excluded from social or educational systems as the underage girls are. This is the case of Wendy, who had to take on all of the responsibility by herself. “When girls end up getting pregnant, they get all the blame «for opening their legs, for being too hot, or because their mothers didn’t take proper care of them». In addition to the stigma for being pregnant they’re also formally excluded as a «bad example» for other teenage girls. Boys are not expelled for getting a girl pregnant and they are not expected or forced to take responsibility, rather it’s the girl who has to take it all on”, she says.
“And if she wants to interrupt the pregnancy, society not only criticises her for getting pregnant at such an early age but also denies her the possibility of abortion, when she should have this option”, Wendy says.
Among other consequences of the imposition of pregnancy in teenagers is that their mental and emotional health is put at risk, according to Maria Jose, because girls and teenagers don’t have the emotional resources to take care of another person who depends totally on them.
The first months of her maternity were really hard for Wendy. While she was taking care of her child she was constantly thinking she would have preferred not to have had him. These thoughts made her feel guilty and that she was a “bad mother”, so she was unable to express herself to anyone, bottled them up and took recourse to self-harming and cutting as a way of expressing these feelings.
Wendy came from a family context of conflict and already was having emotional difficulties, so with her underage pregnancy worsened this. She became clinically depressed and anxious.
“At the beginning it was super difficult. The baby didn’t give me problems because he didn’t cry much and he behaved well, but I had feelings of regret which made me feel guilty. The first months were like that. Now I’ve accepted things. I’m not spending every night with thoughts that don’t let me sleep. Before, I used to think a lot about other possibilities for my life, like how I could be studying or doing other things. I felt really guilty about it”, he says.
Becoming a mother completely changed Wendy’s life. She says it’s been a process of reconciling with herself, during which she’s realised that her life isn’t over as some people kept repeating to her on multiple occasions. “You can be a mother and still enjoy life”, just with greater obstacles.
Although her plans to begin university were interrupted by the pregnancy, she plans to return to them next year and become a professional Spanish-English interpreter. Over the last year she has worked on the issue of guilt and she managed to stop her self-harm. In her words: being a young mother in Nicaragua isn’t easy, but with the help of her support network she is sure she’ll achieve her goals.