CARTAGENA, Colombia – After the death of her 16-month old son, Catalina Escobar created the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation (JuanFe Foundation) in Cartagena, Colombia. Since opening the organization, she has affected the lives of thousands and is working to end the cycle of poverty that moves from generation to generation.
When the foundation began in 2001, Colombia’s main problems were its infant mortality rates, which were the highest in the world, and its teenage pregnancy rates, which were the highest in South America. At the time of the foundation’s opening, two out of every three inhabitants of Cartagena were poor, and one in every four lived in extreme poverty.
The average rates of teen pregnancy in Colombia stood at 19 percent, but when looking at the rates below the poverty line they increased significantly to 55 percent. In Cartagena the average rates were 30 percent, or about 5,000 teenage girls per year.
Teenage pregnancy is a complex issue to solve because there is not simply one cause. Particularly in this area, girls deal with poverty and social exclusion. In addition to this, they are “vulnerable to family partner violence and sexual abuse, which all too often leads to pregnancy.”
The leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries for girls ages 15-19 is complications with pregnancy and childbirth. The risk of stillbirth and newborn death increases by 50 percent between adolescent births and those of women ages 20-29.
Teenage pregnancy does not only impact the health and lives of the mother and child, but impacts society as well. The majority of teenagers drop out of school when pregnant, which drastically decreases the likelihood of them finding jobs.
Helping teenage mothers is important because when they have children at a young age, their children are likely to follow in the same footsteps. The 27-year-old grandmothers that Escobar met in the program are the proof.
Escobar helps teenage girls in her Teenage Mothers Program with a “360 degree intervention.” The program describes its four dimensions as, “empowerment, entrepreneurial skills, health and counseling.” Many girls come in without goals for the future, without plans for economic stability and without healthy lifestyles.
Girls are provided with a program that meets on a daily basis, ensuring they receive quality health care, nutrition and education as well as both emotional and psychological support. All of these factors ensure each participating member leaves with a more secure future in sight.
Girls can also participate in the Teenager Mothers Extension Program, which is a continuation of the Teenage Mothers Program that focuses on further developing vocational and life skills. Through this program, scholarships are available for technical schools and universities as well as workshops for job training. By focusing on which skills are being employed in the current markets, the program can help ensure that girls are getting decent jobs upon completion of the program.
The cost for each girl to complete the Teenage Mothers Program is $1,800 and lasts for two-to-four years. Girls attending the program that follow the guidelines can break the cycle of poverty.
Teenage mothers leave the program empowered because they are able to generate stable income for themselves and have control over their sex lives. The girls realize that they have the potential to break the cycle of poverty and move towards a brighter, more successful future for themselves, their children and their country.
– Kim Tierney