LA DALIA, Nicaragua — Things are getting steamy between two cartoon characters kissing each other on the big white screen. The boy wants to have sex without a condom; the girl is worried he will walk out on her if she says no. Finally, she gives in but soon after finds herself pregnant. Raging with anger, he dumps her.
A group of about 20 youths, 13- to 22-year-olds from rural Nicaragua, watch the Brazilian-produced “Maria: Once Upon a Girl” cartoon with intense concentration. Sitting on plastic chairs around the room, they represent the universal teenage look: girls with dark eye makeup, countless jewelry trinkets and tight-fitting clothes; and guys with baggy T-shirts, gelled hair and baby faces. Everyone is in jeans.
Afterward in small groups, the audience discusses the video. Mabelflorcita Espinoza, 16, recognizes the movie’s plot all too well from her friends’ dating lives.
“First the couple is happy and spends a lot of time together,” Mabelflorcita said. Then, as soon as the girl finds out she’s pregnant, the boy exclaims, “It’s not mine!” and disappears.
Other girls nod in unison, ascribing this and the guys’ reluctance to wear condoms to Latin machismo.
This is the small town of La Dalia, in the province of Matagalpa in central Nicaragua, where a workshop titled, “I’m young. I’m an adolescent. I talk about my sexuality,” is going on. The event is organized by a youth program called VozJoven, which translates in English as “young voice.”
VozJoven is a cooperative of 43 Nicaraguan municipalities and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as well as local civil society groups. It was founded in 1998 but expanded greatly in 2008 with financing from the Netherlands and Finland. These countries have donated more than 10 million euros, about $13 million, to the project. But their embassies are actually leaving Nicaragua at the end of the year because of economic and political reasons — the latter related to widespread corruption, they say.
VozJoven’s official mission is the “promotion of sexual and reproductive health and participation of adolescents and youth.” In the last four years, it has reached around 100,000 Nicaraguan youth.
Yet in this conservative religious country of nearly six million people, talk about sex is hardly a given. For two decades, sex education in schools was banned. Since 2008, it has become part of the national curriculum in theory, but the teaching is sporadic at best.
While the Roman Catholic church officially has no say in the educational system, the moral values it promotes run deep in society. What is taught focuses on sexual biology instead of how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, behind Haiti. Nearly half the population lives below the official poverty line and, though poverty is declining, more than 80 percent of the poor live in the countryside. Health care services in rural areas remain minimal and roads can be nonexistent, particularly on the Caribbean side of the country, where boat service is often the only choice of transportation.
While the country is likely to achieve a “significant” number of the Millennium Development Goals (including infant and child mortality but not maternal deaths), the World Bank says, the urban-rural disparity is stark. Schooling is seriously low for most Nicaraguans. Reflecting the close ties between the church and the government, abortion was completely outlawed in 2007, even in cases where a mother’s life is in danger. The ban has led to more maternal deaths, human-rights groups say.
So it may come as no surprise that the country has the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Latin America and the highest outside Africa. The average age of a woman giving birth for the first time is 19.8, with just over a quarter of babies born to mothers who are 14 to 18 years old. About half the women have a child by the time they turn 20.
Of the number of women dying at childbirth, 22 percent are teenagers. Of all the females that are raped every year, two-thirds are girls under 17. In 2011, Nicaragua’s rate of domestic or sexual violence was 57 times higher than the World Health Organization‘s definition of an epidemic.
Condoms and birth control pills are available in pharmacies as over-the-counter products, but mustering the courage to buy them is not easy for teenagers — at least not in small towns, where rumors spread fast.
Besides organizing workshops, VozJoven has set up recreational centers in rural areas, where young people can practice radio, theater, writing and sports skills. The organization has also opened maternal houses, where young women who live far from hospitals can stay before giving birth. As for sex education, the program relies on group discussions and peer support rather than lectures.
“It’s much easier to talk about these subjects in an informal setting,” said Marieliz Rodriguez, who works for UNFPA as the municipal program coordinator of VozJoven.
The Dalia event was the sixth one held this year. It is part of a series of 12 workshops leading to a youth-sexuality conference that was held in the capital, Managua, March 13 and 14.
The conference attracted 150 youth delegates and 50 adults, from government officials to doctors, to discuss the situation of young people in Nicaragua.
These include dialogues on issues such as sexual rights, domestic violence and pregnancy, said Enrique Picado, the coordinator of Movimiento Comunal Nicaragüense, a local group collaborating with VozJoven. It received the United Nations Population Award for its work in 2009. The conference also occurred because of the loss of VozJoven’s biggest financers, the Netherlands and Finland.
“This will be a great termination of the project for them,” Picado said.
For VozJoven, the departure of these two countries means that the organization will need to rethink its operations. The 6.1 million euros, about $8 million, given by the Netherlands, and the 4 million euros, about $5.2 million, from Finland will be used up by December.
But Picado is confident that the educational efforts of VozJoven can continue. Talks are going on with other possible financers, such as the Doctors of the World network. Other efforts to maintain the program are also being considered, said Maria Largaespada Fredersdorff, the senior health expert at the Netherlands’ embassy in Managua.
The first strategy being discussed is shifting the focus of VozJoven to a more regional level, as money has flowed mostly from a central base to poor communities, where the rec centers have been built. But the centers can start earning money themselves and keep running the educational workshops that way, since many of VozJoven’s centers have the potential to become self-reliant.
“Some houses have developed small businesses, such as photocopying, audio or video services, providing entertainment at parties, renting out equipment or building Web sites, to name a few options,” Largaespada Fredersdorff said.
The second, more obvious choice would be to merge VozJoven with another social program. Possible allies include the national youth crime prevention sector, the national police or corporate social responsibility programs. “But all this is in the initial stage of plans,” Largaespada Fredersdorff noted.
Enthusiasm for the workshops is definitely not lacking among teenagers. In La Dalia, some were bused from as far as three hours away to attend. Besides watching the video and talking about sex and sexuality in small groups, the day consisted of ice-breaker games and drawing drills.
At the end, five teenagers were selected to attend the Managua conference. One was 13-year-old Kevin Omar Cruz, who brought up the importance of talking about domestic violence.
“Demanding sex as proof of love is also one of its forms,” Kevin, the shortest boy in the whole group, said in Spanish with a calm voice. Responding to the laughter of his peers, he reminded everyone, “This is a serious matter,” eliciting even more giggles.
Kevin may seem young to attend the workshop, but statistically, the average age for experiencing one’s first sexual encounter in Nicaragua is 14 for boys and 16 for girls.
One of the oldest workshop participants, 22-year-old Irma Rugama, is all too familiar with the downside of not using contraceptives. She became pregnant with her daughter at age 15, mostly because of “lack of confidence and knowledge” regarding birth control. As a single mother, Rugama wants to learn how to talk about openly about sex to prevent her daughter from ending up in the same situation.
“She is 6 years old now and she already knows what a condom is,” Rugama said. Eventually, she will tell her daughter the purpose of the device. “I’ll take it step by step with her.”
Rugama is on good terms with her ex-boyfriend, and he regularly spends time with his daughter. But not everyone is so lucky in Nicaragua. Mabelflorcita Espinoza, the 16-year-old who has seen many friends become struggling single parents, is determined to let motherhood wait. So she keeps busy with her favorite hobby: playing soccer.
“First, I want to have my career and a good balance in my life,” Mabelflorcita said, who was one of the five students from La Dalia chosen to attend the Managua conference.
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Mirva Lempiainen is a journalist from Finland who writes about travel, culture and social issues for media based in Finland and in the US. She has a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and writes a travel blog at www.writeronthemove.com.