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ARGENTINA: Hundreds of Thousands of Teenage Girls "in Limbo"

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 5 2009 (IPS) - Cintia, 17, already has three children and is trying to go back to school, which she dropped out of several times because of the births and when her kids were sick. But the principal of her high school is not optimistic.

Teenage mother in Buenos Aires  Credit: Malena Bystrowicz/IPS

Teenage mother in Buenos Aires Credit: Malena Bystrowicz/IPS

He believes that when the cold weather starts with the arrival of the southern hemisphere winter, the young woman will just drop out again.

Cintia* forms part of a huge pool of adolescents in Argentina who neither work nor study, nor are looking for a job. Sociologists here refer to them as the "ni-ni" (neither-nor), a group made up of an estimated 756,000 youngsters – 73 percent of whom are girls or women – between the ages of 15 and 24.

"Boys in that age group go out, and tend to get drawn into the world of crime. But the girls stay at home, which is why, even though they are a majority in this group, they are invisible," sociologist Guillermo Pérez, co-author of the Torcuato Di Tella University study "La Cuestión Social de los Jóvenes" (roughly, The Social Question of the Young), told IPS.

In this country of nearly 40 million, there are 6.4 million young people aged 15 to 24. Of that total, 2.7 million are vulnerable because of their socioeconomic or family situations. This group includes the "ni-ni", most of whom are girls who mainly stay at home.

Pérez said most of these girls come from female-headed households. When the mothers find work, their oldest daughters drop out of school and take over the care of the house and their younger siblings.


But there are also personal reasons that lead the girls to drop out of school, the most frequent of which is pregnancy.

While boyfriends in this situation tend to leave school to seek some sort of informal sector employment, pregnant girls tend to find their lives restricted to the domestic sphere and child-rearing, and are condemned to a sort of limbo of inactivity and resignation, the study says.

Pérez says public policies aimed at providing young people with support in the form of scholarships or training rarely reach this specific group. "What is needed here are policies to prevent girls from getting pregnant and dropping out of school."

Once the girls drop out of school, he says, it is difficult to get them to come back: "They aren’t too enthusiastic about it."

Lourdes Dorronsoro, a social worker with Cimientos (Foundations), a local NGO that offers scholarships and tutoring to some 33,000 teenagers around the country, tells IPS that teenage girls drop out of school after they have their first child, or because they have to take care of their younger brothers and sisters when their parents find temporary work.

The Cimientos programme where Dorronsoro works reaches out to 200 youngsters who left school or have missed more than 70 days of class in four schools in the poor Buenos Aires suburb of Berazategui.

Half of the 200 students are girls, 17 of whom dropped out of school in 2007 because of the birth of their first child, said the social worker. Only two of them have managed to return to school this year.

The surveys conducted by Pérez and his colleague Mariel Romero for the study found a great deal of apathy among the young respondents. The girls "have no plans or dreams, no hopes. They have no future. The present is so difficult, they have so many unsatisfied needs, that there is no place in their lives for wishes or goals," says the report.

Cintia tells her story

That is the impression one gets from Cintia’s candid smile. She says she first got pregnant at the age of 13, but didn’t realise she was expecting until she was seven months pregnant. "I was just hungry and tired, and my mom told me I was getting fat, that I had to go to a nutritionist," she tells IPS, laughing.

A month after her first daughter was born, the 18-year-old father left. "He tried to hit me," she says, but without clarifying whether he left her, or whether she or her parents kicked him out. He has not had any contact with his daughter, who is now four years old, since then. "I know he had two more kids, and now he’s in prison for robbery," she says.

According to the study, which is based on hundreds of surveys, the girls "live in a matriarchy. Almost all of them have been left" by their boyfriends or husbands.

The young men, for their part, do not include their children in drawings of their families, as if the kids were somehow the "property" of the women, says the study.

After she had her baby, Cintia tried to go back to school. But her little girl was frequently ill and had to be hospitalised, and Cintia missed too many days of class as a result.

Later, she got involved with another boyfriend, a man 20 years her senior. She returned to school, but dropped out when she had her second daughter.

The story repeated itself again with her third child, and with more frustrated attempts to return to school.

The principal of the night school, who did not want to give his name, commented to IPS that it is very difficult for teenage mothers to complete their secondary school education, and said they tend to drop out over and over again.

He says he lets them bring their children to school, where the little ones run up and down the hallways. But he never kicks out the mothers – they drop out themselves, he says. After a while they come back because of the need to finish school in order to get a job, which is Cintia’s hope.

She is excited about the possibility of getting a cleaning job at a leading fast food chain – an aspiration that is within the reach of many girls from poor neighbourhoods. But even this seems overly ambitious. "Without having graduated (from high school), and with three kids, I just won’t get called back. If I only had one kid, it would be easier," she admits.

Dorronsoro says the future is not easy for these kids, whether they are girls or boys. "They say they go to school to ‘be somebody’, but we work hard to get them to understand that they are already ‘someone’ and that what school gives them are tools to build their future," she says.

Cintia has sought assistance from different state agencies, but without success. After she had her first baby, she went with her mother to ask a gynecologist to insert an IUD, so she wouldn’t get pregnant again. But the doctor said she was too young for an IUD, and prescribed the pill instead.

After her second pregnancy, she went back to the gynecologist, and was once again refused an IUD. "They prescribed a contraceptive pill that you can use while you’re nursing, but they’re not effective," she says. Finally, after her third pregnancy, the doctor inserted an IUD.

Because her boyfriend is unemployed, Cintia tried to get a subsidy for her family, but she was denied it "because I’m a minor."

She then tried to apply for a programme for young entrepreneurs, but there were no vacant slots. The only help she gets are free milk for her children and food stamps.

Her oldest daughter is in preschool, but her second, who is almost two and has health problems, is still on the waiting list for day care. Despite her young age, the little girl is being treated by a psychiatrist because she has seen so many scenes of domestic violence among the adults in her family, Cintia says.

Her oldest daughter did not suffer the impact so much because "every time there was trouble, I would send her running along by herself to my mom’s," says Cintia. But the second girl "cries and has to take medicine," whose name the young mother does not remember, although she thinks it is a "sedative."

The young women surveyed by Pérez and Romero came to the interviews with their children, who were looked after by a group of educators and psychologists so their mothers could answer the questions.

Off-the-record, the professionals who took care of the children said the little ones had significant developmental delays.

"The girls ‘postpone’ their sense of failure," says Pérez. "They say they would feel like they had failed if things didn’t go well for their children. But behind each one of these 600,000 girls there are at least one or two children who are going to be trapped in the same marginalisation, ensuring that the cycle of poverty is not broken."

* Not her real name.

 
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