Thursday, February 26, 2015

A place of refuge

By Joseph French

( Paint that our team and mothers did on the floor of the terrace.
 Above: The moon shines like my daughter.
Bottom: Mums from Casa Refugio, I love you)

Above the busy streets of central La Paz, a place of refuge lies hidden in a maze of alleys. Casa Refugio is a place of tranquillity despite its central location, the cacophony of car horns and roaring engines are dulled by the winding web of buildings that stretch uphill from Prado to the house. Casa de Refugio, or House of Refuge in English, is home to twelve young mothers aged between twelve and nineteen years old. The centre was created by the Arco Iris Foundation in response to the desperate situation faced by thousands of teenage mothers in Bolivia. Often homeless, young teenage mothers in many cases resort to prostitution to survive or else must abandon their young children and search for a new future alone. Casa de Refugio gives these girls shelter for them and their young children against the harsh reality faced by many teenage mothers in Bolivia.
Upon visiting the centre with my group to deliver a series of workshops targeted at improving self-esteem, self-confidence and pride, I was amazed by the warmth of the centre. The mothers were always willing to learn, and by our second session had really come out of their shells.  The mothers were confident and very engaged in the workshops. The centre provided a great environment for our three hour workshops, the centre’s in-house childcare team were able to look after the children whilst the mothers participated in the workshops. I couldn’t help but think how fortunate these young mothers were in a country with little public services to support girls like these.
In a country where 18% of girls between 15 and 19 are pregnant or already mothers, centres like Casa Esperanza are important to ensure that this generation, and the next, are healthy, safe and learn the key skills needed for success. However, it is also clear that more education should be provided by the government to raise awareness of contraception. Of teenage pregnancies, a staggering 70% were unplanned, meaning many children are born into families that are underprepared and therefore unable to support a child. Furthermore, except in cases of rape, abortions are illegal in Bolivia. This means that girls are unable to terminate unwanted pregnancies unless they are prepared to use an illegal abortion clinic. These abortions are often dangerous and the conditions unsanitary. The Bolivian Gynaecology and Obstetrics Society estimates there are 60 deaths for every 10,000 illegal abortions, equating to more than one death per day. This leaves Bolivian teenagers without the right to safely and legally control when they have a child, making motherhood an obligation, not a choice. Generally, teenage pregnancy is not a result of the wishes of the mother. Instead, according to Babatunde Osotimehin, director of the United Nations Population Fund, it is caused by an “absence of opportunies as well as the social, economic and cultural pressures that teenagers live beneath”.

Bolivia must now invest in solutions to reduce its high rate of teenage pregnancy. It is certain that better education about contraception is needed, especially in rural areas that have a substantially higher rate of teenage pregnancy, almost twice of that in urban areas. Better, more reliable, public health services are also essential. Young people need access to confidential advice so they can make well informed decisions about sex and contraception use. Lastly, Bolivian families must become more open about sex and contraception. This is a sustainable way of raising awareness of the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease from unprotected sex.

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