In the Face of Need: Introducing Girls to Families

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.

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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.

1 in 5 women in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.

1 in 5 women in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.

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.

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“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

Existing in humanity

I spent this afternoon transcribing an interview I did six months ago in a quiet mountain suburb in Quito, Ecuador. I was speaking with a fifteen-year-old girl (we will call her Yamileth) who had an eight-month-old son and was living in Casa Elizabeth, a home I have talked about frequently in other blog posts. That afternoon, she told me about her family, her life, her high school classes and her dreams for the future.

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I’ve sat here this afternoon 2,000 miles away in a Starbucks. And I can’t get one simple sentence she said out of my head, “I never thought [before coming to Casa Elizabeth] that the love of God existed in humanity to help those who are ‘condemned.'”

Later this week I will share more about Yamileth’s story, but for now I will simply say, she found in Casa Elizabeth a group of people that gave unconditional, unconservative and uncondemnatory love to a pregnant fourteen-year-old.

I never thought [before coming here] that the love of God existed in humanity to help those who are ‘condemned.’

And isn’t that what God’s love should be? Every time I reflect on my summer in Ecuador I am overwhelmed by the truth that it is the radical, incomprehensible love of God existing in ordinary humans that makes all the difference. In the down-on-their-luck, victims-of-society, least of these.

But also in me.

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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