"Harvard for teen mums" helps girls in Colombia escape poverty

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 12 February 2014 12:14 GMT

Jeilen Rose, 13, and her son at the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation in Cartagena, Colombia January 2014 Photo by Anastasia Moloney

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With its creche, cafeteria, clinic, chapel and classrooms, this "Harvard for teen mums" provides a respite from the hunger, violence and squalor in which the girls live and the training to build better lives

CARTAGENA, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Jeilen Rose got pregnant at the age of 12, it was a burden she thought would be too great to bear as she felt her childhood end abruptly.

“At first, it was a big shock. No one tells you about how you can get pregnant. I wasn’t sure how I felt about having a baby and if I could deal with it," said Rose, now 13, rocking her 2-month-old son gently in her arms.

“I don’t miss playing with dolls. That’s for 10-year-olds. I do miss though playing with my sister at home. But I’ve come to realise that despite getting pregnant at a young age, it’s not a burden and I can move on with my life and be someone,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a centre for teenage mothers in Cartagena, a port city along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Rose is one of the lucky ones. Around 5,000 teenagers give birth every year in Cartagena alone, and Rose is one of 300 young mothers this year who have been selected to attend a privately-sponsored centre that supports destitute teen mums.

Getting pregnant as a child is a massive burden for most young mothers worldwide. It takes a toll on a girl's health, perpetuates poverty and squanders their chance of getting an education.

Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 in many developing countries, while babies born to teenage mothers are more likely to be born premature and have a low birth weight, which can affect their health and development, according to the World Health Organization.

Breaking this cycle of poverty and reducing high infant mortality rates among adolescents has become the mission of Catalina Escobar, who started working with teenage mothers 13 years ago and opened the centre in 2011.

Escobar’s work was borne out of personal tragedy.

In 2000, Escobar, then a businesswoman, was volunteering at a public maternity hospital when one day a 14-day-old baby boy died in her arms.

Four days later her second son, who was 16 months old, died falling from the eighth floor balcony of her home.

“I connected the two deaths. They both passed away, but the difference was that my own son was an accident. What happened to the baby who died wasn’t an accident. His teen mum had failed to raise the $30 needed to pay for this treatment. I had that money in my pocket that day. But that money was needed a few days before,” Escobar told Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Named in honour of her late son, Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar, the foundation sits amid sprawling slums, swelled by displaced families fleeing Colombia’s conflict, miles away and out of sight from the beach resorts and colonial-walled city that have made Cartagena a tourist hotspot.

Despite the income generated by tourism, at least one in three people in Cartagena lives on less than $2 a day.

“There’s a very close correlation between poverty and teenage pregnancy. Between 55 to 60 percent of women who give birth in Colombia are under the poverty line. In Cartagena that figure is about 70 percent,” Escobar said.

“When a poor girl gets pregnant, she drops out of school. The worst thing is that the following year, she’s going to become pregnant again. She's repeating the same patterns of her mother and grandmother, who were also teen mums."

Colombia has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Latin America. Nearly 20 percent of girls aged 14 to 19 are or have been pregnant - a problem that shows little sign of abating in Colombia and across the region.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region in the world to see an increase in the percentage of women experiencing at least one birth before the age of 15, according to surveys carried out between 1990 and 2011,  the U.N’s Population Fund (UNFPA) said in a report last year.


Rape at the hands of relatives and stepfathers, a lack of education and access to contraception fuels adolescent pregnancy.

“Seventy percent of our girls have been sexually abused and/or raped. They live in an environment where violence and gangs is normal,” Escobar said.

“When a girl says she’s being abused by her mother’s boyfriend or stepfather, often the mother will tell her daughter to keep silent because he’s usually the only one providing for the family. So they have to put up with the abuse. Otherwise they go hungry.”

Violence in the home dominated Maria Teresa Melendez’s life. She came to the centre when she was 17 years old, after getting pregnant with her boyfriend.

“My stepfather would hit and mistreat me very badly from when I was 10. I left home, got involved in drugs and spent a year in prison. I just wanted to be a normal girl and go to school. I was a good student,” said Melendez, who is now 21.

With its crèche, cafeteria, clinic, chapel, classrooms, and psychologists at hand, the free centre is a haven for teen mothers, providing a respite from the squalor in which they live.

“All they see and learn is what’s in their communities, the five blocks around where they live. They live in a fish tank. They only see a world of hunger, violence and the disparity around them,” Escobar said.


Breaking the cycle of poverty gripping many teen mothers and showing them a world beyond the fish tank, as Escobar puts it, involves education and ensuring there are no more early pregnancies.

“The two key drivers to break the cycle of poverty is a responsible sex life and earning a stable income that comes with education. It takes two to four years to break the cycle of poverty,” said Escobar, passing three girls sitting on a bench breastfeeding their babies as they waited to get free contraceptive implants at the centre's clinic.  

“We’re the Harvard of teen mums. We’re very strict with our selection process. We don’t negotiate family planning and second pregnancies,” she said.

Along the foundation’s airy and spacious corridors, the din of crying babies can be heard coming from the crèche. Here babies roll around and sleep on floor mats, while their mothers attend job training workshops and complete their high school studies.

In one classroom, a group of budding chefs and bakers roll pastry dough for meat pies and make chocolate brownies. Next door, teen mums, dressed in neat white and purple uniforms, are learning how to become hairdressers and manicurists.

With Cartagena’s booming tourism industry, Escobar hopes such training will ensure these teenage mothers get jobs in the city’s high-end hotels, spas and restaurants.

“I haven’t seen such a powerful tool as a woman earning money. It changes everything, her relationships and self-esteem. It allows women to gain back control of their lives,” Escobar said, adding that 72 percent of the 2,700 girls who have passed through the doors of the foundation are studying or working.

For Melendez, getting an education turned her life around. After gaining a diploma in hotel studies at the foundation, she landed a job as a waitress in one of the city’s hotels, where she earns the minimum monthly wage of around $325.

“The opportunities I’ve been given mean I can provide for my son. And I don’t have to rely on anyone else,” she said.

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