Can we Stop Teenage Pregnancy in Mexico?

If you have ever walked the streets of Mexico, you’ve probably stumbled upon a young girl holding two children while asking for money. This is a pretty common situation, though not one exclusive to the less privileged – teenage pregnancy in Mexico knows no social class.

Mexico has the highest teen pregnancy rate of OECD countries. 32.7 million girls are currently mothers, and 6 out of 10 of those conceived around age 14 as a result of either sexual violence or a lack of access to contraceptives. So what seems to be the problem?

I believe that the problem in Mexico resides primarily in the deep-rooted conservatism that leads to inadequate sex education. Schools and families must implement initiatives so that the consequences of unprotected sex are discussed out in the open. Schools must have qualified personnel available to address these matters with young people from a healthcare perspective.

What happens, though, to those who cannot access a school that can afford to implement quality sex education? Or to girls who don’t even attend school at all, and instead sell gum on the streets?

Poor sex education combined with ambiguous abortion legislation and extreme poverty generate a devastating outcome for our teenage girls. Even though there are many initiatives designed to address teen pregnancy, clearly there is a lot more to do. Not only do we have the highest teen pregnancy rate, according to the United Nations Population Fund, Latin America is the only region in the world with an ascending trend in teenage pregnancy.

There is another side of the coin and teenage pregnancy can sometimes, of course, be planned and wanted. The Sexual and Reproductive Health Report generated by the National Council of Population (CONAPO) reveals a statistic that shocked me: in 2014, half of pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 19 claimed theirs was a planned pregnancy, even though they were under 20 years old. So is teenage pregnancy still a problem in this particular situation?

In many small towns in Mexico, there aren’t real opportunities for young girls. In some places there isn’t even a middle school, and so without the possibility of education young girls can see becoming pregnant as the next step in their lives. On top of that, in some communities, women with children are perceived as more valuable than those without.

Another important factor to take into account is Mexico’s high rate of domestic violence. I believe this can affect the choices of young girls who live within troubled households as they want to create a family of their own where they can love and be loved.

Teenage pregnancy often results in unfinished education and this leads to limited job opportunities, and a snowball effect begins for girls, their families and whole communities. Pregnancy at an early age can also have a negative physical effect on the human body.

We must demand that our government allocates more funding to sexual and reproductive education, regardless of our own economic and social situation or whether it affects us directly or not. We need to contribute to a more equal society where our status as women is not determined by motherhood. Most importantly, Mexican parents need to stop being embarrassed addressing sex and contraception with their children, as it is fundamental that sexual education starts at home.

We must take care of our girls so their childhood and teenage years are not shadowed by unplanned motherhood.

Don’t be Afraid to Say ‘I Have Anxiety’

The other day, I was having dinner with some girlfriends when one of them opened up about experiencing anxiety episodes over the past few months. She was really embarrassed, confused and crying.

As our conversation deepened, 3 of the 4 people at the table revealed they have been coping with anxiety for a long time. I was one of them. I sat there thinking: how is it possible that I have known these people for my entire life and yet we’ve never mentioned that we suffer from this condition?

Everyone can feel anxious from time to time – it’s a natural reaction of the body and the brain to certain situations or events. But an anxiety disorder is something else.

Have you ever felt as though you spend every single minute of every single day worrying over the slightest thing? Have you ever felt as though your heart is bursting out of your chest? Do you tend to catastrophize every situation in your life? Do you have irrational fears? If you said yes to at least two of those questions then…congratulations! You may have an anxiety disorder.

You must be thinking, congratulations? I’m miserable!

But I congratulate you because recognizing and admitting you are struggling with a mental health issue is the first step towards dealing with it and feeling better.

We need to start acknowledging anxiety for what it is so we can eliminate the stigma around it. 

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in Mexico, affecting 14.3% of the population. To put that into context, there are more people living with anxiety in our country than there are people living with diabetes, yet we rarely hear about those in mental distress. Having an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and crippling at the best of times – add people calling you crazy or helpless and society judging you and things can become much worse.

Since feeling anxious is common, anxiety isn’t often thought of as a mental health issue. I believe that this is where the problem originates. Anxiety is real and in Mexico it is still underestimated. Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and 14 – 20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week? If not, it’s not your fault: too often mental health is put on the back burner and seen as less important than physical health.

If you’ve experienced anxiety and wondered why it happens, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including Social Phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many others.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment. If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to seek help or counseling. You may think you are alone and that no one will understand what you’re going through, but by opening up to people close to you and receiving the treatment you deserve, we will all be one step closer to breaking the stigma around anxiety. If you sense that someone close to you might be suffering, approach them in a way that makes it feel safe for them to open up to you.

It might sound like a cliché but it really is true: you are not alone. Speak up. 

Women are Claiming Back the Streets of Mexico

Three months ago, I was sexually harassed on the street near my university campus. For several blocks, a man followed me as he tried to start a conversation at a very uncomfortable distance with invasive questions. After he unabashedly commented on my looks, I turned around to ask him whether he knew that what he was doing was street harassment. He told me I was overreacting as he was “only complimenting” me.

After that, things got worse. He continued following me, but he wasn’t calling me pretty anymore. Instead, he was thoroughly describing what he would do to me if we were alone. Some people stared at us. I’m sure some of them heard his words or saw my tears. But they did nothing.

When I told my story very few were surprised. In fact, many put the blame on me for walking on my own. When I asked about the possibility of checking CCTV footage from nearby stores, they called me dramatic. According to them, it wasn’t that big a deal. But it was.

Our authorities have made previous unsuccessful attempts to take a stand against the growing rate of gender-based violence in Mexico. However, in February this year the House of Representatives unanimously categorized street harassment as a felony in accordance with the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Without Violence. It’s currently waiting for the Senate’s approval to come into force.

In 2017, Mexico City – ranked sixth worst megacity for women in the world – hosted UN Women’s global forum on safe cities for women and girls. Mexico City’s government has also gradually invested more in the subway’s ‘pink cars‘ program and launched the app ‘ViveSegura’ so that women can report where they’ve been victims of sexual violence in order to map risk-areas.

And so although the authorities are taking some action, it is still not enough. It’s important to keep in mind that Mexico City has a privilege that no other Mexican city has: it’s the capital, and therefore, it’s the center of attention. It’s one of the few cities in the country, if not the only one, that has studies on both sexual harassment and street harassment.

I believe part of the problem is that sexual violence is normalized to the point that it seems like an intrinsic way of thinking among many Mexicans. The ease with which perpetrators can commit these crimes is the result of a culture of normalization that includes victim blaming and telling women to fear public space because we are not safe there.

So, what’s missing when it comes to street harassment?

“I think authorities are trying to stop street harassment. But a real change would require a major structural change, and no one is doing it,” said Ana Pandal, co-creator of Organización Genera, a Puebla-based association that seeks to raise awareness of gender-based violence in Mexico. “We must focus on letting people know what street harassment is as well to ensure that both our society and authorities fully reject it.”

With this in mind, they launched the initiative #YoNoAcosoYoDenuncioYDefiendo (#IDontHarassIReportAndSupport). “We’re trying to support victims and to claim back public spaces. They’re not alone and their voices matter. We also want to encourage privileged groups to stop normalizing street harassment and to create a society of active bystanders who won’t remain silent,” added Sara Achik, co-creator of Organización Genera.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Credit: Sara Achik

The way the campaign works is very simple. After creating a network in a city, the group can access files on Genera’s website where they will find stickers of the campaign’s logo and a girl walking confidently (designed by Mexican artist Valeria Chairez), as well as pamphlets that define and explain street harassment. The members of the group then put these stickers in places where women feel unsafe and post pictures on social media using the hashtags. The goal is to show that they’re not afraid and that public spaces are for everyone who wants to make use of them.

I walked by myself on the street where I was sexually harassed so that I could put up these stickers. I felt no fear. I stopped hearing the words of my harasser. All I could hear was a sentence in my head that repeated itself like a mantra: “the streets are ours”.

1,741 Mexican Women Are No Longer With Us

Content note: this post contains reference to extreme violence

Femicide is defined as the murder of women because they are women. 

According to UN Women, this definition applies whether murder is “committed within the family, a domestic partnership, or any other interpersonal relationship, or by anyone in the community, or whether it is perpetrated or tolerated by the state or its agents”.

Femicide is the most severe consequence of gender based violence.

In Mexico, at least 1,741 woman have been victims of femicide in 2017. This statistic comes from geophysicist Maria Salguero, who has been collecting and compiling data in an interactive map showing the geolocations of femicides known to have taken place in the country.

In her map, Salguero has recorded 4,105 cases of femicide to date since January 2004. This data does not include all femicides within that time period, since it only includes information available from google notifications and newspapers. The map represents a huge amount of time, effort and dedication, and I’m very grateful to Maria for all the work she has done. Nonetheless, her map reveals something terrifying, because in reality the numbers are much higher than it is able to show.

In 2016, there were at least 2,099 cases of femicides throughout Mexico. As I’ve shared in previous posts, cases have been almost unbelievably brutal: impaling woman, boiling and cutting breasts, rape and torture, among many other medieval-sounding acts.

There have been 88 femicides so far this year in the state where I live. One took place so close to my house that it made me paranoid for several months. I couldn’t go out without my taser. My friend and fellow blogger Mariana created a WhatsApp group to share our locations when taking taxis or Uber or the metro so that others would know where we were and that we’d arrived safely. I avoided going out at night.

On 15 September, Mara Castillo – a 19-year-old political science student and activist in the fight against gender violence in Mexico – was found dead after a Cabify driver took advantage of her after a night out and never brought her home. She was picked up from a bar 5 blocks from my house. She is now a pin in Maria’s map.

This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, I want to share some heart-breaking statistics from Latin America:

  • Over half of the 25 countries with the highest femicide rates are in the Latin American and Caribbean regions
  • Femicide is considered to be the second leading cause of death of women of reproductive age in Honduras
  • The impunity of femicide crimes is estimated at 77% in El Salvador and Honduras
  • It was the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico – which began in the early 1990s – that led the term ‘femicide’ to be used in mainstream media
  • In 2014, 871 women were victims of acid attacks related to domestic violence in Colombia

This is why we fight. This is why we march. This is why we write.

Maria Salguero’s map documents the age of victims of femicide, their relationship with their murderers, the way they were killed, the location they were found in, and the legal status of the case (whether there has been a prosecution or not).

Please, I urge you to navigate through the map. Read the cases, feel sickened by the numbers, and remember the women who are no longer with us. With every photo or name you see, remind yourself that this is not inevitable, and that we must fight to make it stop.