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Teen motherhood: how does Latin America stack up?

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Paola González, a 17-year-old honor student from a poor family here, didn't plan on becoming a mother so young. But likely neither did many of the 20,000 other girls under the age of 18 who the UN Population Fund found give birth every day in developing countries around the world. 

The eight-months-pregnant Bogotá teen dreamed of studying physical education in college and becoming a teacher. But she used no birth control when she became sexually active. "I didn't really think about it," says Paola.

Teen motherhood is something that perpetuates poverty and puts girls' health and life at risk, according to the new UN report entitled "Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the Challenge of Adolescent Pregnancy," released today.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 18 percent of women in the recent UN survey reported giving birth at least once before the age of 18. Among that total, 2 percent reported giving birth before the age of 15. The highest regional teen birth rates before the age of 18 were reported in Nicaragua (28 percent), Honduras (26 percent), and The Dominican Republic (25 percent). The global average for women giving birth before 18 years of age in developing countries is 19 percent.

Latin America fares better than Africa (28 percent in West and Central Africa, and 25 percent in East and Southern Africa) and South Asia (22 percent) in terms of teen pregnancies, but trails behind Arab States (10 percent) and East Asia and the Pacific (8 percent).

Marcela Suazo, the UNPF specialist for Latin America, says that studies show as many as 90 percent of pregnancies in girls who are 15 years old or younger are the product of rape. Due to cultural norms, these offenses are rarely reported to health services in Latin America. "The younger a girl is, the more hidden away the pregnancy," Ms. Suazo says.

There can also be disproportionate blame placed on a girl for getting pregnant, according to Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA executive director.

While the report says that many girls get pregnant due to a lack of information – one out of every three teenage girls in Central America was found to be unaware she could get pregnant the first time she had sex – Paola was informed. "I learned about planning methods in school but didn't use them," she says.

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At school, where Paola is on the honor roll, teachers were surprised at her pregnancy but have encouraged her to continue studying. 

Paola is aware that having her baby will set her back, but she doesn't see it as a deterrent to fulfilling her dreams. She plans to finish high school and begin her college studies by the middle of next year.  "Having a baby wasn't in my plans but I won't let it get in the way," she says defiantly.  


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