Teenage pregnancy is on the rise in Costa Rican schools. A report released last week by the Education Ministry (MEP) indicates that 1,434 pregnant students attended Costa Rican public schools in 2009, a 67 percent increase over the 856 students who were pregnant in 2004. According to MEP, in 2009, 3.6 out of every 1,000 Costa Rican female high school students were pregnant.
“We have more and more pregnant students every year,” said Ivan Ceciliano, who has been the principal of the LuisDoblesSegredaHigh School in La Sabana for 10 years. “We have around 100 students who have either had a child or are currently pregnant.”
MEP’s report indicated that the school had 42 pregnant students in 2009, the highest figure in the country. There are currently 1,620 students enrolled in the school, of whom 728 are female. If Ceciliano’s estimate of “around 100,” is accurate, then 13 percent of the female students at the school are either pregnant or already mothers.
“It’s an epidemic,” he said. “But it’s not just here in our school. I think that if you talked to any other high school principal in this country and they said they didn’t have any pregnant students, I’d say they were lying.”
According to the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), in 2009, of the 75,000 births reported in the country, 14,668 were born to mothers under the age of 19. Since 2004, teenage births have averaged 20 percent of national births.
There are a number of reasons for the high incidence of teen pregnancies, according to educators and experts. The leading cause of teenage pregnancy, according to many, is their socioeconomic status. In the MEP report, 57 percent of a sample of 154 pregnant teens described their family’s economic situation as “not very favorable” or “unfavorable.”
Both Ceciliano and Emilia Fernández, principal of the RincónGrandeHigh School in Pavas, support the thesis that poverty is a cause of teen pregnancies. Fernández’ school had the second highest number of teenage pregnancies (21) reported in Costa Rica last year.
“The primary reason for the number of pregnancies is that we are a very poor school,” Fernández said. “Many of our students are going out with an older man who they think will support them financially if they have their baby. They consider a child as a way to get out of poverty.”
While the family’s income is considered by many to be a central factor in the spike in teenage pregnancy, other social, home and environmental issues, such as inattentive parenting, peer pressure, and the Internet and television were also cited.
Ceciliano and Fernández also contend that sex education within the Costa Rican school system is inadequate. According to Ceciliano, the sex education offered in Costa Rica is archaic and fails to address modern day sexual realities. Ceciliano attributes this to the influence of the Catholic Church in Costa Rica, whose teachings are incorporated into sexual education.
“There is a disconnect between the Catholic Church and the Education Ministry,” Ceciliano said. “We have kids who are sexually active at the age of 11 or 12, though we teach them in sexual education about abstaining until marriage, as the Bible says. We are living in a different reality now and the church fails to recognize it.”
A survey of 800 young people ages 15 to 35 conducted by the National University’s Institute on Population Studies (IDESPO) last month revealed a similar sentiment in regards to the country’s sexual education program. Over 97 percent of those surveyed thought that minors “should be taught” about HIV and AIDS infections and biological aspects of sexuality both at school and at home.
In the same survey, 83 percent answered that “environmental factors” such as drugs, parties and alcohol were the leading cause of sex at an early age, followed by curiosity, at 68 percent, and peer pressure at 65 percent. The least significant factors in the decision to have sex were religion, at 23 percent, and the influence of educators, at 16 percent.
“Young people are demanding a better sexual reproductive and preventive sexuality education,” said Blanca Rosa Gutiérrez, coordinator of the IDESPO study. “The Education Ministry should consider the results of this survey and work on revisions to the curriculum. … They should look into including themes such as teenage pregnancy as well as the topic of religion and the Catholic Church.”
The Education Ministry says that its efforts to revise sexual education have been thwarted by a ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV).
According to Alejandrina Mata, vice minister of education, the court ruling states that “sexual autonomy” is achieved at age 15. Therefore, students under the age of 15 are not permitted to learn certain basics of sexual education, such as how to put on a condom.
“The vote of the court says that it is not necessary to teach students under the age of 15 how to use a condom and other anti-conception methods,” Mata said. “We are trying to solve the problem by creating a new agreement for sexual education but a revision is yet to be approved. Because they are the highest authority in the country, we have yet to solve anything.”
As for the Catholic Church, Mata said the Education Ministry has recently deleted the teachings of the church from sexual education courses, which she said has resulted in “endless attacks from the pulpit.” Mata said that the Catholic Church has written several reports railing against the Education Ministry and UNA, which assisted in studies about sexual education, and has condemned them for turning their backs on church teachings.
“The church and the Education Ministry are not supporting the same thing,” she said. “The opinions regarding what are the necessary teachings for sexual education are completely different.”
The Catholic Church agrees; they are not supporting the same thing as the Education Ministry. In a lengthy e-mail to The Tico Times, Deacon Federico Cruz referenced the ongoing debate with the ministry.
“Some officials from the Education Ministry object to the Church and its teachings and oppose what is incorporated in its curriculum. However, they do not have the authority to cut out the Church’s right to teach its faithful followers.”
Cruz explained that the Church has created a series of six texts, known as “Love and Sexuality” that “contribute to the formation of a life of love and sexuality”. The six separate texts are targeted towards different ages, including a text for parents with newborn children, three texts designated for different phases of adolescence and one text intended for readers who are over 18.
According to Cruz, the books “offer youth clear direction for facing and solving the challenges of and the results from having sex”. This includes knowledge of one’s own body, managing impulses, sexual relationships, teenage pregnancy, and types of abuse.
The Love and Sexuality texts are available to the public and are used nationwide at Catholic parishes.
Cruz took a further swing at the Education Ministry’s teachings, saying that “Neomarxist mentalities have entered the leadership of the Ministry of Education” and that the ministry was “devising a curriculum and teaching materials to (promote) ideas contrary to the conception of a person, family, society and sexuality that the Church proposes.”
According to both Cruz and Mata, the Superior Education Council is considering the standpoint of both the Church and the Education Ministry in order to develop a new curriculum. No timetable has been set for the Superior Education Council’s ruling.
As the debate continues to find a proper balance for sexual education, the national issue of teenage pregnancy in public schools remains pressing.
“Improving the problem will require more teaching of the risks of sex at home, in sexual education classes, in biology class and in health classes,” Ceciliano said. “Until there is a united educational effort created, we will continue to have a high number of teenage pregnancies in this country.”