Childbearing at a Young Age in Nicaragua–At What Price?
By Victoria Kabak, KF9, Nicaragua
I try not to play favorites, but this week I met my favorite borrower. The borrowers I’ve liked the most so far have been those who are particularly friendly, have particularly interesting things to say, or give me food. Kenia fell into that first category, and I really enjoyed talking both to her and her younger sister-in-law, who helps Kenia make the 60 lunches she puts together every day for a nearby business. Not only did the rest of her family not look at me as if I’m an alien – which I’ve actually almost gotten used to by now! – but they were very friendly as well.
Kenia and I are the same age, and I felt like we connected. I was sad to say goodbye to her and to think about the fact that I will most likely never see her again. I promised I’d make a print of the photo I took of her and her sister-in-law and get it to her loan officer to bring it to her. But there was one thing (well, probably many things but one most obvious thing) that we didn’t have in common. At 22 years old, Kenia has a 2.5-year-old son. James is adorable and smiley and lively, and he definitely added to the positive experience I had meeting Kenia for the journal entry I wrote. But I found myself thinking back to 2.5 years ago. At the end of my sophomore year of college, when Kenia and I were both 20, Kenia was having a baby. If I had had a child when Kenia did, I would have had a baby to care for all throughout my junior and senior years.
Kenia is by no means the first borrower I’ve met who had one or more children at a young age. Whether it was five years ago or 20 years ago, many women borrowers I’ve been fortunate to meet here in Nicaragua began having children when they were in their very early 20s or younger. Meeting borrowers, I have also encountered a couple of pregnant teenage girls. One was a borrower’s daughter; another, a friend of the borrower’s son.
The Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based nonpartisan NGO that seeks to “advance sexual and reproductive health in the United States and worldwide,” issued a report in 2006 entitled “Early Childbearing in Nicaragua: A Continuing Challenge.” The key points listed at the beginning include:
- Among Nicaraguan women 20-24 years old…almost half had had a child before their 20th birthday.
- A quarter of all births in Nicaragua–35,000 per year–are to 15-19 year olds.
- The proportion of 20-24 year olds who had a child during adolescence is more than twice as high among the poorest as among those in the highest socioeconomic category.
- Nearly half–45%–of births to adolescent women were unplanned.
These figures are staggering. Most telling, I think, are the last two. Having a child at this young age is associated with poverty and is often unplanned. And these facts lead me to my main point, because what they suggest is a lack of family planning especially on the part of the poor.
The issue of family planning is, of course, incredibly complex. It brings in not only personal values and ideology but also questions of cultural hegemony: here in Nicaragua, family is of the utmost importance. Families are large, multiple generations often share one home, and grandparents are often very actively involved in raising their grandchildren. If starting to have children at a young age is part of the culture, who are we to judge it and say it’s wrong?
The problem really lies in the association between early childbearing and poverty and in the fact that these pregnancies are unplanned. It’s certainly not to say that ending early childbearing would end poverty, but it’s easy to imagine how it contributes to the cycle of poverty. Having a child at a young age often means the end of a woman’s schooling, hindering her from attaining higher levels of education and in turn limiting the kinds of jobs she’ll be able to get in the future. And early childbearing also inherently implies that the mother or parents have had less time to work and earn money, possibly creating a more difficult financial situation for them and their child than if they had their first baby five years later instead. (I imagine there are dozens of academic studies on the topic, but I won’t go into them here.)
I think that this degree of early childbearing contributes to the cycle of poverty, and apart from the stats, just from what I’ve seen in Nicaragua in two and a half months, I can tell that this is a prevalent issue. Addressing it would be no small feat and, again, gets into sticky territory because of the ideological components. But I believe that to alleviate poverty – as is the goal of microfinance – a multifaceted approach is necessary. Microfinance institutions that are able to provide other services, such as financial education and health services, should consider integrating family planning education or partnering with other organizations that could help in this area, as contentious as it may be.
Here’s hoping that those 45 percent of adolescent women in Nicaragua who are having unplanned pregnancies will have the resources and opportunities in the future to plan, whether their plans involve having children, running a business, or like Kenia, both–or something else altogether.
Victoria Kabak is a Kiva Fellow at AFODENIC in Managua, Nicaragua. Check out AFODENIC’s currently fundraising loans on Kiva.org, or purchase a Kiva gift certificate for a loved one this holiday season!