Reclaiming teenage mothers’ dreams, plans and potential
- 07 November 2022
GARABITO, Costa Rica – Like mother, like son; Ana Francini González Avalos’ son Tairon is a restless, intelligent 7 year old who knows how to read and wants to learn much more. Fran, as she likes to be called, has always been a quick study. When she was younger, she always made the honour roll in school – that is, until she was compelled to leave due to an unintended pregnancy.
“I was a teenager who had many dreams and goals; I wanted to conquer the world,” said the 21-year-old. “Then, a totally unexpected pregnancy arrived.”
Fran became pregnant at 13, when she was in sixth grade. Neither she nor her boyfriend at the time, a neighbour of a similar age, had been taught much about contraceptives or sexual or reproductive health. “When you grow up in conditions of vulnerability, you don't usually have access to scientific, sensitive information that encourages bodily autonomy,” she said.
Costa Rica, where Fran lives, has made significant progress over the last two decades in reducing the adolescent birth rate, due in part to improved access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, including comprehensive sexuality education.
But for the women and girls who continue to fall pregnant as teenagers – and even children – there remains the risk of health issues, denial of access to education and opportunities, gender-based violence and social stigma.
When Fran became pregnant, she was warned she would no longer be able to study or continue with her goals. Instead, she was told: “Your life is over”.
Rescuing plans and dreams
Data from UNFPA and the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Censos reveal that adolescent pregnancy has become rarer over time in Costa Rica. In 2000, one in five births were delivered by mothers aged 15 to 19. By 2021, that ratio had shrunk to less than one in ten births. Meanwhile, births registered to girls 14 years old or younger decreased from an average of 12 per week in 2000 to 4 per week in 2021.
This decline has come on the heels of a series of cultural, societal and public policy changes, including the introduction of comprehensive sexuality education into public school curricula in 2013 and a 2016 law prohibiting marriage for those under 18 years old. Meanwhile, modern contraceptive coverage has increased; in 2022, 84 per cent of women reported their needs for modern methods had been met.
“We have advanced as a country, but we have not yet reached our goal,” said UNFPA’s head of office Juan Luis Bermúdez. “Actions around prevention and care must involve families, communities, social organizations, institutions and the private sector.”
“We must improve the way we communicate with adolescents. We also face the challenge of opening up more opportunities for mothers so that they are not forced to give up their plans and dreams.”
“Betting on ourselves”
Today, Fran lives with her son in Garabito. She and her mother, who lives next door, reside in an area known as “no one’s land” – so called due to uncertainty over the property’s ownership, which has resulted in some of their neighbours’ evictions.
Fran’s mother was the one who encouraged her daughter to resume studying. She had left school in 2015 due to the difficulty of balancing her 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. class schedule with child care. But after participating in several workshops for empowering teenage mothers, some of them run by UNFPA, she decided to resume studying – remotely, as she continued to take care of Tairon – and advanced quickly.
Meanwhile, UNFPA staff in the agency’s national and regional offices took notice of her passion around topics such as youth advocacy, human rights and ending gender-based violence. They hired her to be a facilitator for various camps, workshops and other activities. At these events, Fran shares her sexual and reproductive health knowledge and expertise and discusses her life experiences with other young people.
“Together with UNFPA, I have worked closely with other teenage mothers. Our realities are very difficult and diverse – but we are all marked by being adolescent mothers in conditions of vulnerability,” she said.
Today, Francini dreams of being able to resume her university education in psychology, a goal she put on hold after Tairon's father died in early 2022. She also hopes to find long-term work to support her life with Tairon and her partner, Jimena.
Fran believes stories like hers can convince leaders and society to expand and improve upon the opportunities available to young women and girls.
“[We need to] ignore everything that comes from outside that is usually very harmful – like criticism, discrimination, stigma – and start betting on ourselves, on our potential, on our goals and dreams,” she said. “In the end, one is still a teenager and wants to continue studying, having fun and developing her life as she had before her pregnancy.”