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Teenage pregnancy in Guyana
The young Amerindian girl jostled the baby onto her hip and eyed the delegation of officials entering her village. She was only 13, but already a mother. She was one of many young girls who were raped or coerced into participating in sexual activities at a young age.
Although, the rate of teenage pregnancy is much higher for women living in remote areas of the country and who are Amerindians, it is not isolated to these determinants. In fact, one in every four girls in Guyana become a mother in their teenage years, Pan American Health Organisation Country Representative William Adu-Krow said.
Teenage pregnancy occurs predominately in poor homes, with girls who have early sexual debut. Moreover, it is associated with two other factors—low levels of contraceptive use, and early marriage, which accounts for 13.3 per cent of girls being married or cohabiting between the ages of 15 and 19.
Alicia Ali was one of these girls; her first sexual encounter was at nine years. She became pregnant at 15 and then again at 17. She was forced to drop out of school. Seven years later, she is still reeling from the effects of an early pregnancy.
“I didn’t want to get pregnant. I wanted to finish school but my step-father told me I had to sex to get what I want,” a visibly ashamed Ali said. She related that after her father committed suicide, her step-father moved into their home and things became hard. “I had to do things to get things for school.”
“Everything was okay when my father was alive but when he came he started to touch me and then when I was nine he raped me. After that I went into prostitution and I got pregnant.”
Ali stated that she was twelve years old when she met the father of her child. “He was the first person I had sex with other than my step-father and I didn’t feel terrible. Although I knew I wasn’t ready, I wanted to do it,” she said.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Situation Analysis of Children and Women in Guyana 2016, teenage pregnancy is still a problem since about 15 per cent of girls between ages 15 and 19 had begun child bearing, with different rates depending on the area the girl lives, her poverty status, and her ethnicity.
It stated that while the official age of sexual consent in Guyana is 16, on average, 5 per cent of the women had their first sexual relationship before age 15, however, this statistic does not indicate if the early sexual debut was consensual or it was forced.
Nevertheless, it asserted that in many cases first intercourse is forced, which highlights the underlying issue of gender-based sexual violence and the need for prevention and response strategies. As a matter of fact, 2008/2009 Biological Behavioural Surveillance Survey had revealed that almost 24 per cent of secondary school girls who had started their sexual life were forced by someone to have sex.
The UNICEF report indicated that connected to this matter are repeated reports of incest in Guyana in remote areas, sometimes accepted by cultural traditions, and motivated by the consumption of alcohol and other drugs.
Notably, some of these girls are legally married, Adu-Krow stressed, stating that early marriage is one factor of teenage pregnancy.
“The other issue is culture. In some communities young girls are given out in marriages so even if they are teenagers they are properly married,” he said, emphasising that issues related to culture are difficult to stamp out.
Although, child marriage violates a child’s right to an education and a normal childhood, a teen can be legally married at the age of 16 with the consent of a parent or legal guardian. This is a clause in the Sexual Offences Act.
“Issues that deal with culture are so difficult to deal with. As part of the United Nations, we deal with it in three ways: if it is injurious to the health of any person we frown upon it; if it’s neutral we do not say yes or no, and if it helps we support it,” Adu-Krow said pointedly.
“Teenage pregnancy is touted as one of the risk factors in delivery. In a teenager the bones are now growing and the muscles are now growing and so if you subject it to the trauma of nine months of pregnancy it is one of the hardest punishments we can give the body. Culture or no culture.”
Justice has failed them
Child Counsellor Abbigale Loncke also holds the opinion that early sexual debut increases the risk of teenage pregnancy. “The earlier the girl is exposed to sexual activities the more likely they are to become pregnant during the teenage years.”
She explained that early sexual debut has been documented to increase the level of risky sexual behaviours including having more number of partners as well as not using contraceptives in future sexual experiences, leading to teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
“It is critical to address this problem and to understand the early warning signs, as well as protective factors associated with early sexual debut so that rates decrease,” she noted, adding that a polygonal programme to prevent early sexual debut is crucial for adolescents, especially in low-income, high risk communities.
Besides that, Loncke opined that the justice system has failed and continues to fail Guyanese girls who were forced into early sex.
“The Justice system has failed in the past with prosecuting child predators. Too many cases are left too long to be called up in court and by the time they do the men have disappeared already. I’ve seen many cases where the children have been raped, placed in a home or taken away from where they were… two years later the case has still not been called in court,” she lamented.
She said that after that child has gone through that long gap and begin readjusting to life, they are called upon to relive the experience, “only to be left disappointed.”
Ali recalled that she saw prostitution as the only way to get money to help her survive. She said life got harder for her after her two pregnancies. “Things were already hard to get before I got pregnant so afterward I dropped out of school and started prostituting. After that I took whatever job I could get—cleaning, washing, cooking, taking care of old people,” she said.
According to the UNICEF report, one in every four girls who lived in poor houses in Guyana has started childbearing, in comparison to 1 in every 10 girls living in richer households.
While, 36.1 per cent of Guyana’s population live in poverty, 47.5 per cent of children 16 and younger are living in poverty.
Adu-krow stated that poverty is one of the underlying and structural causes of pregnancy in teens. He stated that some communities are so poor that parents are selling their children to “coast-landers” for money or gifts. He recalled that a coast-lander (someone who lives on the coast) had given a television to an Amerindian family and “the father asked which one of my daughters you want?”
Therefore, Adu-Krow suggested that Guyana has to build its middle-class and reduce the level of poverty.
“When you have a broad middle-class it means that a great majority of the community can support itself but when you have poverty and when you have people living on the margins of our communities, what happens is that the least thing that is offered by a man they take.”
Above all unprotected sex is the immediate factor causing pregnancy among teens. UNICEF indicated that 13 per cent of sexually active adolescents (young women aged 15-19 years) mentioned using contraceptives in their sexual relationships, a number that is below the country average (34 per cent), and the lowest among all other age groups.
However, it must be noted that there are health system bottlenecks and/or legislation that limit adolescents’ access to reproductive and sexual health services. There are situations where sexually active adolescents encounter legal barriers to accessing contraception, information and counselling.
“Second, the lower use of contraceptives is connected to lack of empowerment of girls and older women. Male partners reject the use of any type of protection and girls have to submit to their demands. Lack of empowerment is related to lack of information, and fear of being beaten and abused. Third, qualitative reports also indicate that some religions are still very much against the use of condoms and other contraceptives, with the fear that the incentive of using them would send a message of incentive to young people to have sex,” it stated.
When this newspaper interviewed several youths most of them were against using condoms or any other form of contraceptives: “I wouldn’t use condoms if I know the person because I would trust him,” said one youth.
Most of these teens did not see the threat that lack of contraceptives pose or where misplaced trust can lead.
Loncke stated that most parents or guardians esteem sex as a taboo topic, which would instigate the teens to have sex: “Parents do not discuss with their children or in some cases when the child asks questions they are shot down because sex is never open for discussion.”
She noted that this attitude toward discussion of sexual behaviour causes a girl to be more susceptible to becoming pregnant and also risks her life in contracting HIV or any other sexual transmitted diseases.
“So the more we encourage our young girls to stay in school, the less likely they are to get pregnant. We need to give them other options and opportunities to have hope for the future. We don’t give them a broken justice system or a law which places them at risk,” she said.
Twenty-five per cent of teens in Guyana become pregnant at a young age. (Jeanna Pearson)