Far too much time has passed since my last post. For me and perhaps my one loyal reader out there (Are you there mom, its me Chloe (Victoria)?), this absence is palpable. With these somewhat monthly deadlines, my mind has been conditioned to process events, extract themes, and harvest them until I have appropriate time at an internet café to divulge a semblance of formulated thought to family, friends, and the strangers who disappointedly stumble here. My desire to keep all of you informed has allowed me to better process my own experiences, observances, and tangents of all sorts. However, in the last few months, I have been living so many new experiences and anxieties that blog-worthy introspection didn’t fit into the agenda. I believe it was Socrates who said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Although his words are wise, sometimes living leaves little time for reflection… and he must not have been enamored with a boy. Or maybe he was enamored with a few too many. Either way, with honesty and hopefully a bit of integrity, that explains one of the reasons, along with some work/housing stresses, for my brief hiatus from blogging. But now, I’m back!
Quick update: I have moved from the porcine butcher’s family to the Casa de Estudiante, a boarding house for girls from the poorest families in the farthest communities. This year, 16 girls ages 12-17 live in the house during the week so that they can attend secondary school, receive class reinforcement, eat three daily meals, and have a childhood (admittedly, I am guilty of ethnocentrism). The house is supported by a wonderful Spanish family that believes that those who have should share. They also understand that to combat teenage pregnancy, girls must stay in school. I have just finished my first week with the girls and will focus this blog post on what I am learning about the experience of girls living in poverty.
Last year, the Casa de Estudiante was amongst my most rewarding and most challenging work experiences. At the time, 12 girls lived in the house, including three sets of sisters, all from communities 2-5 hours on foot away from the town’s only secondary school. Their greatest commonalities: poverty and pena, meaning embarrassment/shyness. Last year I came to the house a few days a week. Sometimes I gave a charla about a health theme and other times I entertained the girls with some type of manualidad (arts and crafts). Unlike what you would imagine of a house full of girls, the corridor and rooms always felt hollow – devoid of sound and laughter. In discussions with the girls, they were silent and avoided any eye contact, no matter what dynamicas I attempted. Originally, I attributed this non-participation to my being foreign, but quickly learned that even with the Nicaraguans that spend day and night in the house, the girls’ behavior is the same.
In a previous blog post, The Faces of Motherhood, I described being with a doctor in the house of a 15-year old girl from one of the communities, informing her that she was pregnant. Her expressionless complacency in the life-altering situation she faced gave me chills that I still feel to this day. I later learned that this girl was previously a student living at the Casa de Estudiante, before she “got bored” and “got a boyfriend” (a euphemism for “got pregnant”). More recently I discovered that two other girls who left the house ended up pregnant as well; one pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage and the other in a neonatal mortality. With this information, I made a promise to myself: to the best of my ability, I would focus on doing everything I could to keep these 12 girls from facing the same fate as their peers. But how do you prevent teenage pregnancy?
In Nicaragua, 1 in 3 girls will become pregnant before reaching the age of 18 — the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Latin America. Adolescent pregnancy is endemic here, yet prevention is at a crossroads: Can the health facts (Girls 15 – 19 are twice as likely to die from complications in pregnancy and their babies chance of dying in the first year is estimated to be 50-60% higher than babies born to women age 19 or older) win over the prevalence and subsequent normalization of teenage motherhood? Young girls are often looking after their younger siblings or relatives and when faced without competing future priorities like education and/or job opportunities, if sex means pregnancy, what compelling reason do they have to abstain?
Since these girls are already studying, I realized that their biggest obstacle to a future was pena, which I am told is of a greater extreme in this area than in other parts of the country. Mozonte is recognized for its indigenous heritage, but the greatest reminder I see of this cultural ancestry is the history of ostracism and isolation of poor communities which have been kept at arm’s length, resulting in fear and debilitating shyness – especially in girls. And if a girl cannot assertively communicate, how can she learn to say “no” to sex or to negotiate condom use?
Last year my goal was to fight the pena and promote communication through new experiences. In groups of two, I took girls who were not good friends at the time to Ocotal, the nearby city, to spend the afternoon stepping outside of their small comfort zone. Some of them never go to Ocotal, and the ones who do go accompany their mothers to buy or sell produce. But I wanted this experience to be different. I took them to cafes and encouraged them to try new food and order for themselves. Most were incapable of speaking to a waiter and when asked what they wanted, their faces dropped to the floor. When I walked into stores to show them art or clothing, I expected them to follow. Instead they waited outside the door until I escorted them in. With their feelings of inadequacy and discomfort in the most basic stores, their sense of shame reminded me of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman after she was kicked out of the high-end boutique on Rodeo Drive. Had they ever been asked to leave because they didn’t belong or was it only their fear that the dreaded day would soon come?
When presented with the opportunity to live in the house with the girls for my second year of Peace Corps service, I was elated. I knew there would be challenges – but not what you might think. Since the girls are so shy, I didn’t imagine encountering difficulties maintaining personal space. The difficulties I envisioned involved the sluggish speed of building relationships with them — having them trust me and feel comfortable interacting together. The addition of 5 new girls, 12 and 13 years old, made the challenge that much greater. As these girls are so young and unaccustomed to staying away from their parents for four nights a week, it is this group that typically breaks their commitment to study and live in the house, consequently closing the door for one of the greatest opportunities they will receive to secure a different future. With these challenges, I enthusiastically began my new role as Victoria, the live-in “RA” at the Casa de Estudiante.
In my first week, I found myself taking many mental steps back in order to relish the joy of this experience. The twelve original girls reacted so positively to my living in the house… in their own way of course, with a few smiles and looks of fascination to see what I was doing as I unpacked my room. One of the girls from the previous year celebrated her birthday on Sunday, and on Monday I asked her how it went. She responded, “we are poor”. Although gifts and costly items do not make a birthday, it’s easy to forget that the act of making a day “special” is a luxury to some. Beginning a new tradition in the house, I made non-bake cookies with her and another February birthday girl. Later we sat down as a group and for the first time ever, every girl, led by the original twelve, spoke up about their hopes for the year: excelling academically, taking on new responsibilities, and moving forward to graduation. The following night I suggested we paint nails, thinking that they would paint each others. Instead they asked me. In spite of my blindness and podophobia, I gave 16 manicures and a virtually equal number of pedicures on their little tiny toes. As they gave me their hand or rested their foot on my leg, I felt the confianza growing. I bought a beach ball globe to show them a map and teach them country names. For the first time ever, I saw them playing and laughing in the house, as you would expect of children. And when two of the new girls came and sought me out to further introduce themselves, my heart warmed. These two cousins live 5 hours up a mountain and on Monday morning at 4:30 am, they climb on their father’s bicycle and with him ride down to get to school. One later asked me what was on my desk. She was pointing to my lamp, something she had never before seen. For the first time they are seeking me out for English homework help, when before I had to beg if I could assist them. I have waited nearly a year for these small and seemingly trivial moments; I am delighted to imagine what the future will bring.
The lessons I am learning and perspective I am gaining here is of inestimable worth to me. Among the take-aways, I am realizing the importance of individual and personalized relationships to effect change. There is no charla on teenage pregnancy I can give that would be anywhere as effective as simply spending time with the girls and making them feel their lives are of value.
In global discussions on teenage pregnancy, a lack of sexual education and access to contraception are usually deemed the greatest impediments to change. However, I firmly believe that is an oversimplification of the issue. Although depth and breadth of sex-ed could be greatly increased and improved in Nicaragua, access to contraception is mostly available; the main obstacle for safe sex begins with a pharmacist or medical professional or within a relationship — it is pena that inhibits girls from demanding more of their lives. Pena and not knowing what their lives are worth.
Monday through Friday will be my only opportunity to make an impression on the girls: to make the house fun and school enjoyable as well as to teach them about responsibility and fill the gaps in their reproductive and sexual health education. For the weekends they are home enjoying their families, but also living with threats and temptations to steer them off course. For instance, the lack of water in most of their houses means they bathe in a river without privacy, capturing the attention of men who prey on young pubescent girls. For this and other reasons, like their parents’ discouragement of their studying, the girls’ time away from the house will always worry me. However, I know what I must do to mollify my concerns: I must put my faith in them as I am trying to teach them to put faith in themselves.