June 2018

Teenage pregnancy in Bolivia: an ongoing challenge

On the back seat of a minibus in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia) I see the face of a four-year-old boy looking through the window with interest. Although the photo is not clear, the girl sitting next to him could be his sister, but is in fact his mother. She is not yet 16.

Over the last few years in Latin America, the number of children per woman has fallen, but on the other hand, the number of women under 20 who are pregnant or have had children has risen. Teenage pregnancy is an ongoing challenge in Bolivia, which threatens the lives and wellbeing of both mothers and their children. It is estimated that the rate of teenage motherhood is 70 for every 1,000 births, one of the highest in Latin America. The situation is worse in rural areas, where girls live further away from home so as to be near school, and are therefore more vulnerable.

According to the World Health Organisation, the risk of maternal death is four times greater for girls and teenagers than for women between 20 and 30. In addition, the prevalence of preterm deliveries (before week 37 of gestation), of low birthweight (less than 2,500 grammes) or of neonatal death are greater in babies of adolescent mothers, as Claudia Vivas, Head of Infant Survival and Development, UNICEF in Bolivia has pointed out. Child malnutrition is, in many cases, the result of such cases of early pregnancy, to such an extent that 38% of malnourished boys and girls are born of adolescent mothers.

Poverty has a big role in this: 5.5% of the Bolivian population lives on less than 1.9 dollars a day. A macho culture and violence in the country are also important causes of teenage pregnancies. 45% of women over 15 years old says that they have lived a situation of domestic violence in the last 12 months, and it is estimated that 60% of reported sexual violence against women occur in the home.

According to the United Nations, the high rates of teenage pregnancy could be reduced with a suitable sex education and better access to contraceptives; in fact, only 12.5% of adolescents and young people use some kind of contraception. In addition, abortion is illegal in Bolivia and penalised by imprisonment, and it is very difficult to find free interruption of pregnancy, even in cases of rape, which leads many adolescents to resort to practices which are a danger to their health.

To sum up, a change is needed in reproductive policies and development of differentiated health services for teenagers, so as to deal with the problem of teenage pregnancy in the country.

Irene Aulestia Antón and Alejandro Herreros Garrido have done undergraduate studies in Biology (Universidad del País Vasco) and a diploma in Occupational Therapy (Universidad Complutense de Madrid), respectively, having then done an inter-university UAM-UCM-UA Master’s Degree in “Physical Anthropology: Human Evolution and Biodiversity”. The picture which illustrates their text was taken by Jon Fernández Iturregi, whose photographs may be followed on Instagram @blackandwhitejon. The photo was taken the day that Irene Aulestia and Jon Fernández were travelling on a minibus from the centre of Santa Cruz de la Sierra to the suburbs of Los Lotes, on their first day of voluntary work in the support group for boys and girls called “Solidarity Platform”, whose headquarters in this city in Bolivia.