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.

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.”

The abuse Lucia’s mother allowed to happen illustrates what 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

Sofia and Carla: The need for education

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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

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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Glimpses and Mopping

Deep thoughts for whatever reason often hit me late at night. Tonight it was while mopping the floor.

I have loved my time working in Ecuadorliving with, interviewing, and sharing the lives of five beautiful single teen moms and their childrenbut chores are definitely not my favorite part of the experience.

And twice a week it falls on me to sweep and mop the floor after dinner. So what do I usually do? Put on music, sing out, and mop away.

David Crowder’s “How He Loves” came on just as I began, and suddenly, I had a glimpse of the tremendous and extremely personal love of God:

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
And oh, how He loves us… How He loves us all!

 

I’m pouring cleaning solution on the floor, and I realized that’s how God cleans usby pouring his blood. I’m scrubbing away, and I realized likewise God sometimes has to scrub harder for the dirt to come off.

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Then I thought, these girls. Their pasts. Things that I can’t even imagine, and yet God too cleans them out of His great love and jealousy for them.

And then I realized, eclipsed by glory, how truly beautiful He is and how great is His love for us all. A God who takes abused or abandoned, or simply lost girls and brings them into a home where many of them are experiencing love for the first time. A God who has brought them to a place where they are respected so that they know they are valued. 

When He cleans and when He washes, it is out of great love and jealousy. He wants us clean! He wants us free! He wants us to know love and family and worth. He wants us to know Him. 

Wherever the Story Takes Me: My Journey as a Journalism Student

I’ve been a closet nerd most of my life. I say closet because I’ve always been the personable, class events, party-throwing friend. But I was also the friend who informed anyone who would listen what was going on in Syria. I was the one who followed politics, economics, and social issues, trying to figure out the why behind the what. So when it came to choosing a major, the answer was easy: journalism.

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Enter freshman me, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on a world of current events, social injustices, and scandal. All in a blazer and pair of fabulous heels.

Just a year and a half later, I was ready to give up. I was overwhelmed, burnt out, and not even sure I liked journalism anymore—let alone ready to dedicate my life to it. When someone said the word journalism I felt stress, boredom, and an overall feeling of dread.

Thankfully, the young rise again and love gets a second chance.

It started with my summer internship in Dallas during summer 2013, where I worked for WFAA Channel 8. I didn’t want to go. Like I said, I didn’t know if I liked journalism, and I definitely didn’t like TV news. I’ll be honest; for some reason I had a bias that TV journalism pandered and was somehow a lesser medium. I basically went because I had to do something to fill my graduation requirements.

Then I discovered the power and fun in telling a story visually. I watched these reporters who had been working in the field thirty plus years, day in and day out, find stories people cared about, ask hard questions, and do it all with excellence. I learned that each medium has its own point of view to share. However, I knew that while I enjoyed video, broadcast journalism probably wasn’t for me.

Fast forward to Spring 2014, to little ol’ me sitting in Multimedia Storytelling. I had no idea what I was walking into—a class that would stress me out, challenge me, excite me, and reignite a passion for a field that’s always been a first love.

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I’d spent this entire year wondering where I fit in journalism. Thankfully for me, the answer fell in my lap: online multimedia.

In my skewed view, I had felt limited by the different media, seeing them as competitive instead of collaborative. In this class, I discovered that in multimedia journalism there is incredible potential to tell stories and make people care. By combining text, video, infographics, links, audio, photography, etc., I can show people more fully why I get so excited about news.

And the best part? I don’t have to do it alone.

One of the biggest take aways from this class is that news at its most excellent is covered in a team. I collaborated with other students—students who were often better at writing, taking video, making infographics, or researching than me—while still keeping my personal creativity and voice. I learned from others while contributing my strengths. And the results were something I think we can all be proud of.

So the end to my story? I for one have re-fallen in love with the field of journalism.

Now when I hear the word journalism, I get excited. I once again devour current events hoping one day to cover them myself. I see local stories as a way to impact someone’s life. I am filled with passion when I face the challenge of explaining a complicated story simply and engagingly. And now, I have so many more tools to do it.

From closet nerd to hard-nosed journalist, now more than ever, I’m ready to take on the world in whatever platform or medium the story takes me.