VOF Month 2- First Draft: Girl Mothers and their Struggle
In 1981 in La Paz Bolivia, a coup d’etat by the military took place and all universities were closed; I was 16 years old, and would turn 17 by the end of the year. A year ago I had received my high school diploma with honors, while going to school from 7:30 am to 13:30 and teaching English at the local Bi-national Center from 15:00 to 21:00. I never got tired. Not once. Being at work I met a man a lot older than me. He was 23, and to me, he was an old man. At first I thought it was kind of fun to have him around all the time, until it became obvious that he wanted to be my boyfriend. I have had two ‘boyfriends’ by that time, but we had not even kissed!
So, as it turns out, he was the experienced one and I was too naive to realize how dangerous it was to be with him. By April 81, we had been going out for six months already and I felt so annoyed by his omnipresence that I asked my mother if she could get me a College outside the country that I could attend. She said no. She would rather have me suffer from his suffocation than have me away from her. ‘I might end up having to marry him’, I warned with a shy voice, ‘No you won’t, I asked him not to marry you and he accepted, don’t worry’, she said. By December, I was married to him and pregnant. My mother was so angry at me that she did not come to the wedding, and stopped talking to me for four years. He had tricked me into marrying him by saying that if I didn’t wed him he would commit suicide. Today, if I would be threatened by anyone telling me that, I would laugh so loud that it would be impossible to stop me, and I would surely leave. But at that time, I was only 16 and very impressed by his wording.
By the time my first son was born, I was 17. I did not know I was pregnant until two months after the wedding. My mother in law, a wicked old woman, had told my husband to put strict curfew hours and not let me study, because ‘the devil does not sleep’, and he did that: he became a prison guard and I was not allowed to study, and he did let me work a bit but my pregnancy did not let me do very much. In the fourth month of pregnancy, I got a strange disease that the woman doctor never explained to me. She just ordered some exams and said it was urgent for me to take a strong medication. I followed her orders. Seven months later we had two men who got into the house to rob and one of my brothers in law was drunk and shot one of the intruders, I tried to defend all of us and took a piece of iron to hit the other one. His wife ended up wounded and I ended up in the emergency room, and gave birth before time. The woman doctor shouted at me a lot, treated me badly, but I didn’t know what to do. Nobody ever took a stand to defend me. For everyone, I was guilty of everything that was happening to me and deserved all the punishment. The doctor used forceps to get my son out and I almost bled to death. I was alive by miracle.
My husband had left his job to ‘watch’ over me. He did not have a profession. We were living on what his parents could provide for us, and I did not want more children. My husband raped me and got me pregnant again when my first son was only 10 months old. My second son was born seven months later, and the same woman doctor made my life even more bitter during this second pregnancy with her yelling and her ordering. I had no one in my family that I could talk to and I was ashamed of my marriage so I did not contact my former friends. I was left alone in the world and at the seventh month of my pregnancy, when my son threatened to be born, I had a broken fountain and a bad result of an ultrasound said that my son weighed only 700 grams, too small to take the appropriate medicine, so they did not give him the corticoids. This time, the woman doctor induced me to labor, and my second son was born on February 23rd, 1984, weighing 2500 grams, but he had not been properly medicated and he passed away after four days of struggle with his under developed lungs. The ultrasound doctor never appeared again, not even to get paid.
My son gave me a look that I will never forget. He was a cute angel, with curly hair and beautiful skin. He did not deserve to die. I went crazy. I could not hear a baby cry, because I would start weeping and could not stop. I blamed it all on my husband. My mother did not talk to me, so she did not come to see me. My aunts came over to visit and left without doing anything for me. My mother let me know through my grandmother that I could use a grave that she owned in the cemetery to bury my child. And I buried a part of me in that little white coffin. I needed help of course, but I was too overwhelmed by my situation to be able to ask for anything, besides, all were mad at me and would not help. I did the only thing I could think of to heal: got pregnant again two months later. On December 26th, 1984, my third son was born. He had only been in my womb for seven and a half months, but he was ready to come out that morning, so I felt the first contraction at 7:30 a.m. and the new doctor (I got rid of the woman doctor, finally), was on his holiday leave so when he arrived at the hospital at 8:20 I was being stung by the nurse with a needle while I was shouting ‘my son is coming out, help, help!’ It was hilarious. At 8:40, my son was being born, surprising everyone, doctors, nurses, and myself, because I honestly have to admit… that I did not feel any pain at all.
Half hour later, I had my son in my arms and the future was bright again. I wasn’t even tired. It was really easy. I got up and left the building on my own the next morning. One of my aunts came to visit and was very surprised to see me so well. God was with us, and he took care of us all. My two kids and I were ready for the fight. From there on, I never again complained about anything. I knew miracles occurred.
The economy of Bolivia at the time was a disaster. In 1982 a democratic left party government had taken office and its wrong steps in economic issues resulted in an inflation rate of 10,000%. No, it is not a mistake, it was 10,000%!. Next time I will tell you about my struggle in the hyperinflation times. Right now I want to focus on how desperately alone I was since I was 16 until I reached 22.
A brief research of recent numbers shows that although the story I told you took place 24 years ago, today things have not changed very much for young girls who get pregnant early. Teenagers are in danger of getting pregnant at younger stages around Bolivia. Rape victims have doubled in number in the last two years. Fifty percent of the crimes reported to police officers involve offenses against women and children, either as a part of a bigger crime or as a target in themselves, as well as other crimes like home violence, abandonment of pregnant women, and abandonment of children. To add to this picture, experts state that for every denounced abuse, there are seven that go unnoticed.
People in Tarija are traditionally peaceful. Twenty years ago people were used to leaving their homes unlocked and children would go to schools walking by themselves. Not anymore. As the number of inhabitants has more than doubled in this period of time to 300,000, violent crimes and pregnancies have increased also. Most migrant families come to Tarija, the capital city of the department of Tarija (one of the nine departments of Bolivia), or its intermediate city of Yacuiba (located in the border of Bolivia and Argentina), or Villa Montes, a smaller city near the border of Bolivia and Paraguay. They usually engage in hand labor or commerce. The biggest source of income for Tarija is the exportation of natural gas to Argentina and Brazil, but this industry is not intensive in labor. Half of the migrating families break up and fifty percent of girls coming from broken families are in danger of becoming pregnant and or commit suicide. According to the National Institute of Statistics, 54% of women under 20 who become mothers live in extreme poverty with less than two dollars a day, and 24% live in poverty, with less than six dollars a day. This means that the younger women get pregnant, the poorer they will become.
In the particular case of Tarija, 450 new families arrive every year from other locations with higher poverty rates. When they arrive they usually live in the peripheral areas, invading green spots or occupying risk areas, which allows for poverty spots to surround them, low quality housing, high discomfort, and lots of residents in each household. These families survive, in most cases, by being underemployed, or from municipal assistance resources, and many of them are supported by women or close ones (mothers or grandmothers), most of them having low educational levels, which stops them from getting more specialized jobs. In these communities, the way women are treated is unequal and discriminatory, they live under constant risk with remote possibilities of economical or social promotion, with very low self esteem, they become rioters, very susceptible to the seductive promises of easy profit with drug traffic, illegal sales of alcohol to teens and alcoholics, or robbery and burglary. The consequences of this reality are shown by the Vice Ministry of Social Development and the Office for the Defense of Children and Teens referred to the last months of 2008, who have stated that more than 1000 offenses to girls and boys, teens and women’s rights have been denounced in Bolivia. This number has tripled the denounces from last year, so they reveal the enormous family degradation and the wear out of the social fabric that is present in the city, with a high number of child – teen sexual abuse, offenses made by adolescents, abuse, school leaves, alcohol abuse and drug addiction among others
In this context, girls with migrating parents are in greater risk than girls with parents originally from Tarija. But, what are the real numbers? How many teens are helped by their parents and family and how many are not? How hard is it for young girls to get the right medical attention? Are they being discriminated, mistreated or left out by their nearest social circles? Are their babies well off or have they any kind of disabilities and of what kind? How many years does it take them to leave poverty if they ever do? These questions remain unanswered yet, as there is no institution specifically studying these facts. Different institutions have partial information and they use it also with partial results. Information is the key to facing these problems successfully. This is one of the reasons why I have created the Gender Equality Training and Studies Center (GETS Center) - Centro de Estudios y Capacitación en Equidad de Género CECEG – which intends to be part of the solution for women and girls who suffer from discrimination, exclusion, rape, violence and ignorance. The Center works in three ways: by training women to be gender equality technicians thus creating new jobs for women in risk, by studying gender issues scientifically, so that appropriate numbers will help projects to be more successful gender wise, and by training the society itself through seminars and widespread social marketing campaigns focusing gender equality as a very important means to become a non violent society.