A Harvard Undergrad is Changing How Nicaragua Tackles Teen Pregnancy

More than half of women in Nicaragua give birth before they turn 20 and more than one-quarter will marry by 19.

The country has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Latin America and thereís a combination of high birth rates and high poverty levels that makes life particularly difficult for women. In fact, itís not uncommon to see women in their mid-twenties with five or six children.

The high teen pregnancy rates have been attributed to many factors: poor sex-ed, lack of access to contraception, religious beliefs about contraception, and the nation’s complete ban on abortion with no exceptions.

Despite the research done on teen pregnancy in Nicaragua, and the assumptions made based on that data, the high teen pregnancy rates persist.

Cristina Parajon, a Harvard undergraduate who grew up in Nicaragua, believes thatís because researchers arenít getting honest answers from teens.

Most researchers whoíve looked into the issue are older and foreign and show up asking girls extremely personal and intimate questions. Most teen girls arenít very forthcoming when an old, foreign man starts asking them questions about condom use, whether theyíre having sex and how many people they’ve been intimate with. Essentially, the researchers whoíve studied Nicaraguan teen pregnancy in the past werenít people teen girls felt comfortable opening up to about their most personal and private experiences.

So Parajon decided to take on the issue herself.

Parajon was surrounded by teen pregnancy growing up. Many of her classmates became pregnant during high school. She knew that the conclusions drawn by most researchers didnít reflect the experiences of the girls she knew.

As a sophomore at Harvard, she designed and got approved a study to meet with teen girls in her own community. She then went home for summer break and worked with a community health worker to find girls between 14 and 19 to interview.

The teens were much more open and honest talking to a young Nicaraguan woman from their community who they could relate to than an older stranger. What Parajon found upended the common beliefs about teen pregnancy.

These girls werenít getting pregnant because they didnít know about contraception; most knew three kinds of contraception and where to get it. They also werenít getting pregnant because of religious beliefs about contraception. Most believed God would understand if they used contraception to prevent pregnancy.

Instead, girls were getting pregnant because they feared being seen buying birth control. Many girls were uncomfortable going to a clinic or pharmacy because they believed other people would gossip about them and they didnít want anyone else to know they were having sex.

So it wasnít actually a problem with education that led to many girls getting pregnant, but a problem with gossip and stigma regarding girls and sex.

“I really donít think the contraceptives are the root problem, I think it’s the gossip,” Parajon tells the press. “If people didnít gossip, the girls wouldn’t have any problem getting contraceptives and using them.”

Parajon found that small changes in health clinic procedures can make a big impact. She shared her findings with the community clinic and they changed their procedures to make them more private. Now, patients can ask for contraceptives in a private exam room instead of a waiting room where other people can hear.

After Parajon finishes another round of research this summer she will present her findings to the ministry of health so other clinics will implement changes to ensure patientsí privacy. Hopefully, these changes will make girls feel comfortable enough to do whatís best for their health and their futures.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock.

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