This article is a part of a larger series on teen mothers in Ecuador. Lee el artículo en español aquí.
At night I sit in bed listening to the sounds of babies gurgling, coughing, laughing, and crying; to mothers whispering, “Te amo. Te quiero;” to bottles and burping and lullabies.
The mothers I share a room with are like any living in the U.S. They wake up early, give their babies baths, mop the floor, cook dinner, do laundry, and have birthday parties.
But these mothers also go to school. They have homework. They share chores and only occasionally see their families.
And, these mothers are less than 20 years old.
With the highest teen pregnancy rate in South America, the issue of reproductive and sexual health has become increasingly important in Ecuador.
Casa Elizabeth, a home for pregnant teens and their babies, sits in the north of Quito, the beautiful, mountain clad capital of Ecuador. Visitors walk in the door and are instantly assaulted by bubblegum and hot pink walls, the radio singing Jesus Adrian Romero, and babies crying or toddlers running.
Five girls and four babies currently reside at Casa Elizabeth, along with the “house family:” parents, a five year old, and a one year old.
That makes five teenagers, two newborns, two babies, a toddler, and a five year old. Add one aspiring journalist and you have the perfect picture of My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets 19 Kids and Counting.
In the midst of the chaos, there is a real sense of family among the girls in the home. “Our focus is on making sure those girls are loved, cared for, and have an encounter with Jesus,” said Elisa Brown, Casa Elizabeth Founder and Board Chair.
“Everyone loves on babies, but loving on teen girls who have made mistakes is hard. We wanted to introduce these girls to families.”
Girls from the poorest fifth of the [Ecuadorian] population are four times more likely to become pregnant than those in the richest fifth.
With the highest teen pregnancy rate in South America, the issue of reproductive and sexual health has become increasingly important in Ecuador. The 2013 National Reports state that there are 81 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 18, often resulting from a lack of sexual and reproductive education, abuse, or cultural stereotypes that often place blame on the mother instead of the father.
A 2007 study by UNICEF showed that teen pregnancy rates across the South American and Caribbean region are increasing rapidly; Ecuador has the highest increasing rate of those under the age of 19. A study by the Ecuadorian Center for Disease Control Prevention and the International Reproductive Health Surveys in 2004 showed that at least one in every five women in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.
It’s a pandemic that hits the poor of the country hardest and has been linked to increased poverty, vulnerability, early school dropouts, and economic disadvantages.
The same UNICEF study showed the fertility rate is drastically higher among the poor as compared to the rich, “Girls from the poorest fifth of the population are four times more likely to become pregnant than those in the richest fifth, and recent research shows this inequality has become more accentuated in the last fifteen years.”
After becoming aware of these startling statistics, Inca Link began looking for a way to help in the face of this increasing need.
“We felt early on a call to pregnant teens. I think the medical system abuses them, and they have so little information about their bodies,” said Brown. “At first, I’d just go and be with them in the hospital because I was so passionate [to help them].”
Now, Casa Elizabeth tries to help the whole person, focusing not only on physical health, but also on the mental, economic, educational, and spiritual, trying on a small scale to address a much larger issue.
“We’re not an institution they go in and out of; we’re a family they become a part of,” said Brown.
The following stories are those of this family: five girls who live in this home. Their stories represent the stories of many young women in Ecuador — girls who find themselves mothers in the midst of social, cultural and economic disadvantages.
Read the next blog in the series here.