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As Mexico’s Teen Fertility Rate Rises, Activists Urge Wider Education, Dissemination of Contraceptives

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico
by Mayela Sanchez, Mexico News Desk | June 6, 2014
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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico

Fabiola Álvarez Hernández, 19, and her 22-year-old boyfriend knew about contraceptive methods but did not use them regularly. “At first, I did take the morning-after pills,” she says. “But after I did not want to, I said: ‘What if it hurts me?’ And I did not take them anymore.” She used emergency contraception three times. She learned about that method from her cousins and friends, not a doctor.

With Mexico’s teen fertility rate rising over the past 15 years, experts and teen mothers evaluate government prevention efforts.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – At 15, María Isabel Ibarra Hernández is pregnant with her second child.


She was 13 when she first became pregnant. At the time, she had been dating her baby’s father for nine months and living with him for four months, she says.


This morning, María Isabel is visiting the Community Health Center in the Hank González neighborhood of Ecatepec de Morelos municipality in Mexico state.


Teenagers carry nearly one-fifth of the pregnancies in Mexico state, according to the National Institute of Geography and Statistics. More than 40 percent of the residents of Ecatepec – which adjoins Mexico City, the nation’s capital – are poor, according to the Municipal System of Statistical and Geographical Information.


The weekly workshop for pregnant teenagers is part of Holistic Care for the Teenage Mother, a program managed by Mexico’s National System for the Integral Development of the Family. 


The program operates in neighborhoods that account for most of Ecatepec’s teenage pregnancies, says Tania Pelcastre Ángel, who runs the system’s office in the municipality.


This is María Isabel’s first time at the workshop. She knew nothing about preventing pregnancy before she got pregnant because she left school after the second grade and had never been to the health center, she says.


María Isabel would have preferred to wait for motherhood, but her boyfriend was eager to have a child, she says. She asked him to wait until she had her “quinceañera” party, a celebration that marks the transition of a 15-year-old girl into adulthood. But they did not use protection.


“The truth is that I did fall in love with my husband,” she says. “He used to ask me for a child, and I gave it to him.”


María Isabel and her boyfriend, the father of both of her children, fought constantly and are separated. Now living with her parents, she says all she wants to do is to support her children.


She plans to look for a stable job after her second child is born. Meanwhile, she sells merchandise in subway cars.


Aiming to reduce unplanned teen pregnancies, the Mexican government has promoted prevention for three years. But critics says its campaigns target teenagers who can control their sex lives without taking into account how marginalization, gender violence, and access to sex education and contraception affect other teens. Although the government has also implemented actions to guarantee teenagers access to contraception, reproductive rights activists say access will not reduce the pregnancy rate unless programs ensure that teens obtain contraceptives and learn to use them effectively. Furthermore, sex education should go beyond providing information and promote sexual and reproductive rights, activists say.


Although the country’s overall fertility rate fell between 1999 and 2013, the fertility rate among 15- to 19-year-olds increased from 64 to 66 births per every 1,000 teens, according to the National Institute of Geography and Statistics.


More than 40 percent of pregnancies among 15- to 19-year-olds are not planned or desired, according to the National Population Council.


The Mexican government has focused on teenage sexual and reproductive health only in the past few years, according to the council. In 2011 and 2013, the council and the Ministry of Health launched campaigns aimed at helping 15- to 19-year-olds avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.


The campaigns strive to empower teenagers to assume responsibility for sexual decisions, says Rufino Luna Gordillo, deputy director general of sexual and reproductive health for the National Center of Gender Equity and Reproductive Health, which is under the Ministry of Health.


“If you take the responsibility to initiate an active sexual life, there [is] the responsibility of protection for themselves, including for their partner,” he says. “The idea is to empower these teens that if they can make this decision, they must also decide to protect themselves.”


Marisol, 17, a participant in the Holistic Care program in Ecatepec’s San Agustín neighborhood, agrees that teens must protect themselves. Marisol, who is nine months pregnant, requests partial anonymity for fear of being stigmatized.


“You have the responsibility,” she says. “You know what you want for your future. I think it would be an issue in which each person would know how to take care of themselves.”


Isabel Fulda, executive analyst of Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida, which means “information group for reproductive choice,” an organization that promotes and defends women’s reproductive rights, criticizes the government for promulgating the idea that teenagers alone are responsible for unplanned pregnancies.


“The idea is always: The youth get pregnant because they do not take care of themselves,” Fulda says. “But in reality, the responsibility there is the state’s, and the large number of teen pregnancies that there are, are the product of structural problems and deficiencies that the state should cover.”


The government must address social factors that contribute to teenage pregnancies, including poverty, social inequality, discrimination, gender violence, and a lack of access to contraception and sex education, Fulda says.


Marisol says she left school because of family problems and moved in with her boyfriend. They had been living together for two months when she became pregnant.


Marisol says she got pregnant because she was not careful with contraceptives. She had previously used the calendar method, in which a woman tracks her menstrual cycle and refrains from sex while ovulating, but abandoned it when she started living with her boyfriend. They sometimes used a condom.


Although 90 percent of young people ages 12 to 19 have at least heard about contraceptive methods, only about 33 percent of sexually active females and 15 percent of sexually active males used protection in their first sexual encounters, according to the 2012 National Health and Nutrition Survey.


Further, 36 percent of sexually active teens have never used contraception, according to the National Population Council.

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Fabiola Álvarez Hernández, 19, and her 22-year-old boyfriend knew about contraceptive methods but did not use them regularly. “At first, I did take the morning-after pills,” she says. “But after I did not want to, I said: ‘What if it hurts me?’ And I did not take them anymore.” She used emergency contraception three times. She learned about that method from her cousins and friends, not a doctor. (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

“Supposedly my partner was sterile, and we had a lot of confidence, and it turned out not,” says Mariana Allende Hernández, 16, who was almost eight months pregnant when interviewed. “But simultaneously we are happy because we will be parents. We say: ‘There is no going back now. What is done, is done.’” She is afraid her boyfriend – a 20-year-old pharmacist – will be working when she goes into labor and will not be able to be with her. (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

Lizbeth Hernández Díaz, 15, says her pregnancy was an “accident” since she and her boyfriend previously used condoms to prevent a pregnancy. Lizbeth never thought of abortion as an option because someone dear to her had an abortion at age 16 and still feels guilty about it. (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

Lissete Anahí Nájera García, 15, and her mother, Alma Delia Nájera García, 33, are both pregnant. Lissete is expecting her first child, who was not planned. Her mother, who is expecting her second child, became pregnant with Lissete when she was a teenager. A single mother who had to work to maintain her daughter, she left Lissete in the care of her grandmother. Lissete says she lacked the care of her parents and is confident that she will not repeat that history with her own child. (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

Claudia Ivette Silva Astorga, 17, was in her first year of high school when she became pregnant. She left school and does not know whether she will return to school or look for work when the baby is born. She knew about contraceptive methods but did not use any. (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

Ariana Martínez, 19, will be a single mother, as she says her boyfriend did not want to support her when he found out she was pregnant. Her boyfriend wore a condom sometimes, and she did not use any other protection because she did not think she could become pregnant. “I feel sad,” she says. “I feel as if I failed. I do feel a bit guilty for not having anything [for the baby]. I have nothing to offer it besides affection.” (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

Diana Laura García Aguilar’s boyfriend, José Uriel García Serrano, 19, unloads trucks for a shoe store. His goal in life is to provide for his family, he says. (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

Diana Laura García Aguilar, 16, never imagined she would become a mother at such a young age, but she is still happy. She took birth control pills and her boyfriend used a condom, but they both stopped using protection after they refrained from using it once without consequence. (Mayela Sánchez, GPJ, Mexico)

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