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CHILE: Despite Decline in Fertility, No Drop in Teen Pregnancies

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Aug 19 2005 (IPS) - The life of Yasmín Inostroza, 19, provides a sadly typical portrait of Chile’s 85,000 teenage mothers.

Forced to leave school after becoming pregnant at the age of 16, she now works six days a week as a cleaner in a supermarket, earning 130 dollars a month. She turns her entire salary over to her parents, with whom she lives in a poor neighbourhood in southern Santiago.

“My son Jonathon is three years old, and my mother takes care of him while I work, Monday to Saturday. I was in high school when I got pregnant, but I had to quit school and go to work, because the baby’s father is the same age as me and he was going to school too, and his family didn’t want me to go and live with them,” she told IPS.

Like Inostroza, the vast majority of teenage mothers in Chile are poor, unmarried and live with their parents or their partners’ parents, according to a study published this month in the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Review.

The new study by Jorge Rodríguez Vignoli, a researcher at the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre (CELADE), ECLAC’s population division, reveals that there has been no decrease in adolescent maternity rates in this country of 15.3 million people, despite the fall in fertility rates in other age groups.

By analysing census data, Rodríguez Vignoli determined that in 1982, 11.67 percent of Chilean women between the ages of 15 and 19 were mothers. By 1992, the proportion had risen to 13.86 percent, and then remained essentially unchanged, with a figure of 13.49 percent in the last population census conducted in Chile, in 2002.

During that same period, however, Chile’s total fertility rate – the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years – had decreased from 2.95 in the early 1980s to 2.35 today, according to CELADE data.

“The liberalisation in the conduct of young people has led them to begin having sexual relations at a younger age, but while youngsters in high-income sectors have easy access to contraception, this is not the case in low-income sectors, which is the reason for the link between teenage pregnancy and poverty,” social worker María Cristina González commented to IPS.

“At the same time, the problem has become much more visible as a result of greater openness in society. In the past it was quite frequent for babies born to teenage girls to be registered as the children of the girl’s parents, especially in rural areas,” she added.

Half of the poor women living in rural Chile today became mothers before the age of 20, notes Rodríguez Vignoli’s study, which also underlines the link between teenage pregnancy and school dropout.

“According to the 2002 population census, 85 percent of teenage girls under the age of 17 who do not have children are enrolled in school, as compared to only 30 percent of those who have children. A poor teenage mother is most likely to be out of school and devoted to essentially domestic tasks,” the study’s author noted.

Yasmín Inostroza is a prime example of this hypothesis. “With the amount of education I managed to complete before I got pregnant, there’s no way I could get a good job. I’d like to at least finish high school, by taking night classes, but it’s impossible, because I don’t have the money to pay for it, and I have to take care of my son,” she said.

A high school diploma acts “as a powerful but not infallible protection against teenage motherhood,” states the study, which highlights the fact that access to greater educational and employment opportunities is associated with lower rates of teen pregnancy.

Data from the 2002 census show that only 17 percent of mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 are married, while 28 percent live with their partners and a full 55 percent classify themselves as single.

The conclusion that emerges from these figures is that the majority of teenage mothers live with their parents or their partners’ parents, but the support they receive from their families is not enough to allow them to continue their studies or find decent employment, as a consequence of poverty.

In addition to the family, there should be other sources of assistance for teenage mothers. The state needs to make a greater effort to prevent discrimination and provide schools, day care, counselling services and subsidies, while the labour market should offer employment for young mothers.

“Progress has been made in recent years, with new Ministry of Education regulations that forbid discrimination of pregnant students, but the state should adopt other measures to protect teenage mothers, and above all, employers must not exclude them from the labour market,” said González.

For his part, Rodríguez Vignoli believes there is an urgent need for measures directly aimed at promoting more responsible conduct among adolescents, in terms of both the age at which they become sexually active and the use of contraception.

“It is essential to offer adolescents counselling services and specialised support, in addition to distributing contraceptives and teaching them to use them regularly and properly,” he stresses in his study.

A survey by the Feedback polling firm, released this week, indicated that 90.3 percent of people in Santiago support the promotion of condom use among adolescents, while 71 percent believe that women should have access to the emergency contraceptive known as the “morning after pill”.

In addition, 61.3 percent believe that abortion should be permitted when pregnancy results from rape. At present, abortion is completely prohibited in Chile, even when the woman’s life is endangered, due to a law adopted in 1988, in the final years of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).

For González, the survey results are encouraging, considering the influence of the Catholic Church and its staunchly conservative stance on these issues.

“It is becoming increasingly clear to Chileans that teenage motherhood and unwanted pregnancies are a matter of public health, not of religious faith,” she remarked.

Rodríguez Vignoli emphasised that measures to promote contraceptive use must be aimed at all adolescents, and not only teenage mothers, who are often more likely to practice birth control after having already become pregnant, and also have greater access to family planning services.

In publishing this report, ECLAC called for teenage pregnancy and motherhood to be given top priority on the social agenda.

The United Nations has also placed special emphasis on maternal health and infant mortality as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

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