Here in Guatemala we have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Some 44 per cent of women have a child before they are 20, with many of these pregnancies unplanned or, worse still, the result of sexual abuse by fathers, uncles or brothers.
Efforts by the state to improve sex education and offer free contraceptives have made little difference in poor areas such as Jocotenango, where a deeply rooted machismo culture still dominates. We often come across shocking stories of sexual violence against young girls. Three years ago we had a student who was raped by her own grandfather – a story that would have made the headlines in another country, yet here it is not that unusual.
On average, at least two 14-15-year-olds in our middle school become pregnant each school year, but last year we had five pregnancies in the school. Abortion is not really an option in this Catholic country, so girls generally take a year out to have their babies and then we do our best to encourage them back to school. The fathers tend to have little or no interest, but fortunately babies can often be cared for at home by other members of the family. It’s far from ideal, but we have to be pragmatic.
'I feel hopeful'
I do feel hopeful, however, that things are changing. We’re working hard to empower our girls by partnering with programmes like Ser Niña by Realgirl, which works on strengthening girls’ confidence, self-esteem and self-respect.
We hold sex education workshops throughout the year for both parents and students, and recently started a “parents’ school” which runs classes on health and childcare. Re-educating parents in parenting skills is essential to our success.
We also have a sexual abuse prevention programme in which we train staff to be able to detect cases. When there’s suspicion of abuse, the student is referred to the psychology department. And if we’re sure or highly suspicious, then we report it to the authorities to start an investigation. We support the victim and their family psychologically and emotionally, and we also get legal support through other organisations.
Of course, after all this work, we then face the problems posed by boys from outside our school who have not had the benefit of our education programmes. Many of them have no respect or consideration for girls. We build something inside the school that gets destroyed outside and then we have to build it up again. It’s a constant struggle for us, but we know that education is the only answer and that it is our duty to keep rebuilding.
Jorge Castillo is head of secondary at the School of Hope in Jocotenango, Guatemala
The School of Hope in Jocotenago, Guatemala is owned and run by UK based charity Education for the Children (EFTC). Read more about the school here.