This article is a part of a larger series on teen mothers in Ecuador. To read the first article in the series, click here. Read the previous article here.
After a long night of frequently-waking sick babies, I hear the bed beneath my bunk squeak as Carla wakes at 7 a.m. She begins dressing her son, Tomas, while Sofia is in the other corner sweeping the floor and talking to her daughter, Natalia.
My two roommates last summer had been roommates since they gave birth within a week of each other. The girls could not be more different. Sofia is a bubbly, affectionate girl of 19. Her gullibility is continually a source of laughter at Casa Elizabeth.
Carla is quieter. She loves to read but struggles to connect with the other girls in the home. But she is ambitious and daily, while others are watching TV, doing chores or talking, Carla can be found at the kitchen table making up the homework she misses because she can’t attend classes.
“My mom or my dad never [went to school], and because of that I saw the poverty in my mom,” said Carla. “I want to study. I want to continue life.”
“I want to study.” A phrase I heard over and over as I interviewed girls 15 to 18 years old, facing an unknown future with no one but their first child. All, without exception, knew that an education is the key to a job and economic stability for their families.
“The girls [teen moms in Ecuador] clearly identified education as an opportunity to gain economic autonomy,” wrote Isabel Goicolea, the foremost researcher on teen pregnancy in Ecuador in a 2010 study. She proposed that gender equality in the country, specifically in regard to teen pregnancy, would only happen through education.
But that economic autonomy is out of reach for most teen moms in South America, because an almost eternal cycle of education deficiencies exist in their families, like that of Carla. She was bounced from family member to family member for most of her life, but was determined to not only finish high school but to go on to university.
Sofia, Carla’s roommate while at Casa Elizabeth, did not have the same options. “From the time I was eight-years-old I had to leave to work,” Sofia said. “I was a maid. I have a photo with my first patrons and I was so small.”
In Ecuador, it is common to send children to work as live in maids with wealthier families, known as patrons. The schooling of such children largely depends on the generosity of the patrons. Some allowed Sofia to go to school; some didn’t.
Once they are pregnant, the chance of a teen girl who comes from poverty finishing high school or going onto higher education — already slim — becomes almost nonexistent.
Sofia is a very smart girl, cheerful and eager to learn. But today at 19-years-old, Sofia struggles to read and does have not much more than a mid-elementary education. It could take her eight years to earn her high school diploma. With a daughter, and no family willing to take her in, she will probably never finish.
Because Sofia has worked as a maid for so long, she has the skill set to provide for herself and her daughter; she perhaps doesn’t need her high school education. But many other girls in Ecuador are not as lucky.
The United Nations in 2011 statement said education in Ecuador is the permanent solution for communities in risk, because it lets the adolescent girls be free from abuse of the past.
And the solution to teen pregnancy is not just academic or occupational education, but also reproductive and sexual. “There is a lack of education these girls have about themselves and their bodies,” said Eliza Brown, Director of Casa Elizabeth.
That lack of education is the “principle responsibility for the prevention of adolescent pregnancy in adolescent girls,” Giocolea wrote.
It is a two-fold problem: girls in impoverished communities lack education about their bodies, abuse and contraceptives, resulting in pregnancy. Once they are pregnant, the chance of a teen girl who comes from poverty finishing high school or going onto higher education — already slim — becomes almost nonexistent. And then the cycle repeats itself with her children.
Which leaves Carla and Sofia with few options. Carla says she will find a job, rent an apartment, and, “If God lets me, I would study in the university,” while Sofia simply dreams of a place to work and a “room for two.”
Read the next blog in the series here.