Lucia: A culture of abuse

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. 

Perhaps what is one of the darkest spots on the beautiful landscape of Ecuador is a culture of abuse that takes place behind the closed doors of homes and apartments all over the country. This abuse contributes to an incredibly high rate of teen pregnancy in the country, although it is often not reported because cultural stigmas cause families to view domestic violence and abuse as a private matter.

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It was the cause of Lucia’s pregnancy. Her mother’s ex-fiancé José, 57, sexually abused her for months. He was living with her mother, Lucia, and her two sisters at the time.

“He began to pay me attentions,” Lucia recalled. “I felt afraid and I told my mom everything. And she said, ‘No. It’s not okay.’ But it just kept happening.”

“It just kept happening” is the story of many girls and women in Ecuador. One in six women have been victims of physical, sexual or psychological violence, one in four have been raped, and almost 30 percent have been sexually abused, the Ecuadorian government reported in 2014. The results were from a four-year study of gender violence by The Panamerican Organization of Health. The report also stated that there are more than 3 million female abuse victims in the country annually.

“So a month passed like that,” Lucia told me in her bedroom at Casa Elizabeth, a home for pregnant teens. “One day my mom went to work and my sister wasn’t there. I was there alone with [José]” Lucia was 15. 
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“One day I told him, ‘No. I don’t feel well. My mom would never support this.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to,’ [but] he wanted to so he got angry. He made me afraid.” So Lucia and her family moved out of José’s home. Over the course of the next month, her mom bounced from home to home with Lucia and her two sisters, including a former boyfriend and an uncle.

When one of the men got violent, Lucia and her family were forced to turn back to José. At this point, her mother suspected Lucia was pregnant. “My mom told me that I had to marry him if I was pregnant,” Lucia said. “But my mom was afraid, because we had no where to go.”

This situation may be hard for many in America to understand — the cultural precedent that shames women into hiding abusive relationships. While domestic violence and abuse are universally condemned, it is often ignored in Latin American countries, stated the UNIFEM (the United Nations’ committee against domestic violence) in 2011. The cultural view that places expectations on Latino men to dominate their homes, known as machismo, also glorifies a woman who is passive and complacent — and who keeps her family from embarrassment.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Family Violence found that it was a “lack of education and the fear of backlash [that] ultimately impede women from filing a report. From a young age, women are dependent on men because of an intractable social attitude that domesticates them.”

The cultural view that places expectations on Latino men to dominate their homes, known as machismo, also glorifies a woman who is passive and complacent — and who keeps her family from embarrassment.

To put it simply, these women are pressured to endure violence and abuse because they lack the socioeconomic options to leave. We hear it echoed in Lucia’s testimony that “my mom was afraid, because we had no where to go.” DSC_0048

But Lucia’s story is also an example of what Ecuador is doing right. Since the late 1990’s, Ecuador has increased support for abused women in the country. Laws have been passed which allow greater protection for victims and punishments for the aggressors. It has begun public awareness programs and female-fun police stations, which has the specific purpose of processing claims of domestic abuse. Schools are required work with pregnant teens so that they can finish school if they want to. The U.N. in a 2011 statement called it “a leading country in Latin America to ending domestic violence.”

It was teachers who noticed Lucia was missing school and that something was wrong. When José tried to rape her younger sister, Lucia confided in the school psychologist and agreed to press charges against him, saying that he assaulted other girls under age before her. That was when she was sent to Casa Elizabeth, and where I met her, 16 and five-months pregnant.

And while she still has at least five more months in Casa Elizabeth, she is already looking ahead. She doesn’t know where she will go, but says that she will continue school and provide a good example for her child. “My life has been complicated,” Lucia said. “So of course I am afraid of being 16 and a mother…. [But] I will go with pride.”

Read the next article in the series here

Julieth: A story of hope

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. 

It is easy to get caught up in the statistics of the thing.

july1 in 5 girls in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.

Girls living below the poverty line are 4 times more likely to get pregnant.

Some statistics have even stated that as many as 62.7% of pregnancies in the Amazon jungle are unwanted or unplanned.

Like I said, easy to get caught up in the statistics. But perhaps what I learned, more than anything else living with five teen mothers in the Ecuador, is that hope is found in the individual story. It’s in what we do for the person directly in front of us.

Julieth, also known as July, was 11 when her mom died of cancer. She’s an outgoing, passionate girl, who laughs and loves easily. She was the “mother” in a home of mothers, helping the younger girls adapt to taking care of babies who were sick, didn’t want to eat, cried easily or couldn’t sleep. My first night at Casa Elizabeth, she saw through my fear and culture shock, told me to sit down and watch a movie with her.

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But she was not always so comfortable in that role. July lived with her stepfather, an aunt, then a friend of her mother’s before getting pregnant at 15. “Before, I went out with boys without thinking,” July said. “I drank a lot. I was always partying.”

It is easy… to become overwhelmed by the mixture of social disadvantages, bad choices and pure evil that contribute to the situations teen moms find themselves in.

It wasn’t until she had a medical scare that the lifestyle halted. “I felt a bulge in my stomach and my entire family was scared [because they remembered my mom],” July said. “But I went to the doctor, had a test and he said you’re pregnant.”

July’s story is unique because she came to Casa Elizabeth after she had Felipe, who was then four-months-old. Social workers said she could no longer stay where she was, and Casa Elizabeth made an exception, because “Julieth had nowhere to go,” July recalled.

She did not want to be there. She said she had a bad attitude, didn’t want to share her space and it was “very, very difficult.” But the house parents showed her how a family could be different.

“When I came, I saw their lives, how they acted,” July said, remembering that she found their kindness weird. “But now God has done many good things in my life. They make you apart of their family.”

DSC_0171Casa Elizabeth is a home that doesn’t just help the girls with the physical and economic needs of having a child. They also help them continue school and emphasize living a healthy lifestyle physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. But everything Casa Elizabeth does is centered in the family, something July decided to take with her when she left. “I’m nervous,” July told me days before her wedding last June. “Because for the first time I am forming my own family.”

July is also unique because she married her boyfriend, and the father of Felipe, Gorge. A beautiful wedding, perhaps because it showed that we don’t have to fear the insurmountable.

It is easy when listening to the tragic stories of five teen moms in the mountain capital of Ecuador to become overwhelmed by the mixture of social disadvantages, bad choices and pure evil that contribute to the situations teen moms find themselves in.

You only have to listen to Lucia’s mom tell her she must marry the 57-year-old man who sexually abused her for months. Or to the fear that Yamileth’s boyfriend might come back, and hurt her or her son. Or as Sofia, a 19-year-old girl, struggles to read at the kitchen table.

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These are a few of the people I met this summer: moms, babies, volunteers. They inspire me in the face of the incredible pandemic of teen pregnancy in Ecuador.

But then I remember laughing at dinner over some mistake I made in Spanish. I remember Dani, Yamileth’s son, making faces at me across the room, late night facial nights and dance parties. I remember the pure joy that anyone can find anywhere love and acceptance is.

It is easy to get caught up in the statistics of teen pregnancy. But the hope I see is not in large-scale public policy or international efforts, although those do help.

I see hope in a school psychologist who noticed something was wrong and called in social services. I see it in the house mom who spent hours on a Wednesday afternoon picking lice out of a girl’s hair. Or the counselor who volunteers on Tuesday mornings to just listen. It’s in the mission team who comes to build beds large enough to sleep a mom and her child. It’s in the family who donates baby clothes or weekly buys diapers.

I see it in the individual who dedicates his or herself to helping the person right in front of them, without judgment and full of love — and I realize that anywhere there is an overwhelming problem, God also provides unexpected hope.

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