‘We Get Blamed for It’: Young Mothers Push for Sex Education in Haiti

Vanessa Marcelin, 25, became a mother when she was 12 years old. She now runs a support group where she offers girls advice on avoiding pregnancy.

By Anne Myriam Bolivar, Global Press Journal, March 28, 2024

When Françesse was 13, she had sex with her then-boyfriend, who was around her age. For two months, she didn’t get her period. It wasn’t the first time her period was late. But something was different. Françesse, who, like other sources in this article, requested to go by her first name for fear of stigma, was nauseated.

“I told my boyfriend, who asked me to wait. Then, after three months, I had other symptoms. I took a test, which revealed I was pregnant,” she says, staring vacantly at a busy road in this bustling district in the commune of Gressier, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

Françesse, now 14, says her mother died when she was 3 months old. Her aunt took her in, and her father paid her school fees. While she received a high school education, she says she didn’t receive any sex education in school or at home. In fact, the idea that she could get pregnant when she had sex that first time didn’t cross her mind.

“The school never provided any clear information about pregnancy. There were no classes dedicated to this topic. Talking about it is taboo. We skimmed over the subject and were told to wait until secondary school,” she says.

Françesse’s experience is not uncommon. Teenage pregnancies continue to be an issue of concern in Haiti. There isn’t much recent national data, but according to a survey conducted in 2016-2017 by the Ministry of Public Health and Population, around 10% of young women aged 15 to 19 were pregnant or had already given birth at the time of the survey. According to the survey, Port-au-Prince recorded a teen pregnancy rate of only 5%, but the figure went up to 13% in more rural areas and 14% in the departments of Center and Grande’Anse.

Anecdotal reports, according to a 2020 report by Banyan Global — a consulting firm — for the United States Agency for International Development, have also showed an increase in teen pregnancies in Haiti since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Marc Deverson Beauvoir, the coordinator of Koze Gresye, a youth nonprofit, says that a survey they conducted in 2022 in Gressier revealed that 3 to 4 out of 10 girls aged 12 to 17 have already been pregnant. He adds that the organization conducted the survey in 10 schools to understand the rising trend of teenage pregnancies in this area.

Rijkaard Fortuné, a school principal in Gressier, says that in 2022 and the beginning of 2023, his school documented a dozen pregnancies among girls aged 14 to 16, a figure that surpasses previous years’ annual average of five.

Part of the problem, Fortuné and other sources say, is that sex remains taboo in schools and local communities. This means young people lack essential and accurate information to prevent early pregnancies.

“Some teachers occasionally address the subject in class to raise awareness among students, but that’s far from being enough,” Fortuné says.

Beauvoir says that the survey his organization conducted in 2022 revealed that because of a lack of sex education, some parents believe that their children’s pregnancies were the result of Vodou curses, after malicious people cast spells on them.

“We visited several schools, and not a single one of them offered sex education,” he says.

Etienne L. France is the western departmental director of Haiti’s Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training. He admits that there are no formal sex education courses in the curriculum, but, he says, that shouldn’t stop teachers from teaching students about their bodies.

Joseph Job Maurice, general coordinator of the Center for Education and Quality at the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training, agrees while there is no formal program dedicated to sex education, teachers could utilize opportunities to teach such skills, for example, in biology courses. He adds that the ministry promotes a “competency-based approach,” which encompasses three levels of knowledge: academic, practical and behavioral.

“A teacher can get a child to think about his or her body and sexuality,” he says.

Poverty spiral

The country’s precarious situation, marked by economic instability, compounds to the problem, says Offny Dorvilier, a community leader from Gressier. He adds that because of the economic situation of many families, girls aged 13 to 15 are susceptible to exploitation to meet their basic needs.

“Some young women are forced to flee their homes under threat from armed gangs, which forces them to live with strangers or in shelters,” he says. “Sometimes parents have no idea where their daughters might be.”

Meanwhile, teenage pregnancies, Beauvoir says, exacerbate families’ economic challenges. He says that in many cases, pregnant teenagers will drop out of school, which interrupts their education and career prospects, resulting in a loss of income potential. This has ripple effects on parents already struggling financially.

When Françesse found out she was pregnant, continuing with school was no option. She knew she would be stigmatized.

Gazena, who gave birth in December 2023, says she found out about her pregnancy after her first trimester.

“Almost all teachers would not support this kind of behavior, and it would be frowned upon by some students. The school would be forced to expel me. So, to avoid scandals, [I stayed] at home,” she says. “I dreamed of becoming a nurse, but given my current situation, it’s very unlikely that I’ll be able to continue with my studies.”

Rose Derline Lindor is a community health worker who focuses on sexual and reproductive health in Gressier. She believes that teenagers do not yet have the maturity to take on the responsibility of raising a family. They are also unprepared economically.

“Without an education and a profession, I don’t think they’ll have a job, and most of these girls languish in poverty, with two or three children to feed,” she says.

In some cases, families might force them to undergo abortions, which are illegal. She believes this puts their lives at risks. Those who carry their pregnancies to term also face physical and mental health risks, Lindor says. Complications such as hypertension, hemorrhage and preeclampsia could endanger their lives as well as those of their unborn children.

Educating the parents

For Fortuné, a major part of the challenge is that parents aren’t equipped, as they never had a chance to learn sex education in school either. He is of the view that the education ministry should introduce a compulsory sex education program taught by competent professionals.

Like Fortuné, Jonel Bazelais, a sociologist in Gressier, sees the need for sex education campaigns that target not just teenagers but their parents. Encouraging young girls to continue their studies and introducing a social program to support parents in economically precarious situations are also measures the government could consider.

But Marie Claudette Louis, coordinator of the women’s union for the development of Gressier, says some parents may push back.

“[They] are reluctant to allow their children to use contraceptives such as birth-control pills, because of harmful effects they might have on their daughters’ health,” she says. “They often have great difficulty in accepting that their children engage in sexual relations.”

Denise Louis-Jean, a mother of three daughters, two of them teenagers, is one of those reluctant parents. Although she believes this information is important, she says it should only be available when young people are mature enough. She argues that broaching this subject with children aged 13 or 15 would only encourage them to engage in sexual experiments. Louis-Jean worries about introducing contraception to girls at such a young age and its effect on their health.

For Vanessa Marcelin, who became a mother when she was 12, sharing her experience has been one way to address the issue. Today, the 25-year-old runs a group for teenage girls where she advises them how to prevent early pregnancy.

Unlike many girls in Haiti, Marcelin was lucky to have the unconditional support of her family, which allowed her to pursue her studies and get into university. “I’m aware,” she says, “that not every girl in a situation similar to mine at the time had the same opportunities as I did.”

But fear of stigma was still an issue, so her parents isolated her until after the baby was born.

“It’s common practice here that when a girl of my age is pregnant, she can’t go to school until after the birth, and sometimes she has to move to another school in a different area,” she says.

Like most sources who spoke to Global Press Journal, Marcelin believes investment in sex education, and not just in schools, is the only way to address the issue. “If the school doesn’t do it [and] the families don’t do it, this problem will persist.”

“If the school doesn’t do it [and] the families don’t do it, this problem will persist.”VANESSA MARCELIN

Françesse, who gave birth in December, says she cherishes her child as a precious gift and feels ready to give him all her love. It helps that she has the support of her child’s father.

Gazena, 14, found out about her pregnancy after three months. “I realized that I was pregnant when my period stopped,” she says.

She is the youngest in a family of five children and lives on the outskirts of Gressier. She says that no one taught her about pregnancy or how to prevent it.

“When it happens and our body starts showing, that’s when we get blamed for it,” she says.

When Gazena’s parents found out she was pregnant, they kicked her out of their home. Now, her boyfriend’s family takes care of her.

But Gazena does not plan on stopping school.

“After weaning my baby, I’m planning to go back to school,” she says. “And I want to use contraception to avoid another premature pregnancy.”

 

Anne Myriam Bolivar is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

 

Posted April 21, 2024