Chile's teenage moms bring their children to school

SANTIAGO, Chile — Ignoring the dirty looks from other passengers, dozens of high school students get on public buses carrying their books in one arm, and their babies in the other.

These are Chile’s teenage moms, and they go to school with their children.

Despite budget restraints and some complaints by parents, 36 public high schools across the country have opened day care centers for their students’ babies. Three years ago, only one school offered a day care center.

In years past, and still at many schools across the country, these young mothers would likely have been expelled or prevented from continuing their studies. They would be accused of setting bad examples for their peers.

More than 16 percent of Chilean babies are born to teenage mothers, according to the latest Health Ministry data from 2006, up from 13.7 percent 15 years earlier. Most young moms drop out of school to care for their kids; some of their fathers also leave their schooling behind to start generating income.

High school moms play with their babies at the day care center.
(Pascale Bonnefoy/GlobalPost)

President Michelle Bachelet has made expanding coverage for early childhood education a priority. Since 2006, her government has tripled the number of day care centers for children under 2 and is set to meet its goal of 3,500 new centers by March. These centers are free and available for the poorest 40 percent of the population. Since demand is high, most have waiting lists, but adolescent mothers are given priority.

The Juanita Fernandez Solar Technical High School is one of the three schools in Santiago with day care centers. An all-girls school, it offers five years of high school education that includes, in addition to the regular curriculum, technical training and internships in early child education, secretarial work, and the clothing and food industries.

When Catalina Alarcon became its director in 2006, she found herself with a great number of pregnant students. Most were from the district but some also came from other areas of the metropolitan region — girls who weren't admitted to schools in their districts because of their pregnancies or who felt discriminated against at their old schools. They badly needed a technical degree to get working soon to be able to raise their kids, and turned to Juanita Fernandez.

The school didn't have day care back then. It was the students and their parents who first started pushing for one.

“Their parents were concerned because all of these girls were in ninth and 10th grade and they didn't know what to do once their babies were born," Alarcon recalled. "So we called a general parents meeting and everyone agreed: we needed a day care center.”

Inaugurated in 2007 and funded mostly by the government, the day care center has capacity for 22 babies under 2. Students bring in their babies when classes start at 8 a.m. and spend recess with them. They have special leave from class when they need to breastfeed and are immediately called in when a problem arises. An open door policy allows these young moms to spend as much time as possible with their babies.

Fancy Lobos had her son Cristobal when she was 15 and in 10th grade. She was happy, but above all, frightened about what her family would say.

“My grandmother got mad and my mom didn't speak to me for two weeks. Then one day she took me to the health clinic to control my pregnancy. I was so little, I didn't even think I had to see a doctor,” she said.

She said the day care at her school was vital. Without it, Lobos is sure that she would have dropped out. Now, her son is 1, and she is about to start 12th grade.

“They’ve taught me a lot of things here. I have spent a lot of time with the other girls with babies and we all help each other. We get together here in recess and talk. I believe a baby isn't an obstacle for studying or working. On the contrary, a child provides more satisfaction, it gives you more strength to carry on,” said the teenage mom.

Some outsiders accuse the high school of fomenting sex and teenage pregnancy by “making it easy” to have a baby. Alarcon says that is nonsense.

“We are not promoting teenage pregnancy. What we are doing is supporting these girls so they can finish school, give them tools so they can enter the labor market and be able to bring up their babies. We are just facing reality,” she said.

In fact, the school says it takes pains to prevent pregnancy among its students by regularly holding sex education workshops.

Actually, said Tamara Fuenzalida, director of this day care, having this center is the best contraceptive ever.

“Their classmates see that caring for a baby involves a huge sacrifice. These students can't go out to party at night. If their baby is sick during the night, they come to class without having slept all night. They can't go out to recess like the others because they are here with their babies. The other girls see them arrive in the morning full of bags, the baby, sometimes a stroller and an umbrella,” she said.

Other municipalities have also taken unprecedented steps to ensure these students’ education.

In the Puente Alto district in Santiago, for example, a municipal decree outlines the rights and duties of students, their families and the school during pregnancy and after childbirth, including pre- and post-natal leave, as well as a five-day leave for male students fathering a child, medical appointments, leaves for breastfeeding and illness of their child, and psychological help if necessary.

The rules even establish that pregnant students may not be prevented by their teachers from going to the bathroom whenever they wish. They also ensure that libraries offer reading material on pregnancy and self-care.

In 2009, the National Board of School Assistance and Grants sent a questionnaire to all public high schools in the country to report on the number of students who were pregnant, had babies, or were fathering a child. This was the first time a government agency gathered this kind of statistic, and found that there were more than 16,000 students currently in one of these three situations.

But despite regulations from the Education Ministry, the ways schools deal with the issue still vary significantly. "I have not seen regulations like the ones in Puente Alto in any other school,” said Juanita Aguilera, in charge of gender issues at the Education Ministry.

“It hasn't been easy, because this is a problem that society is just beginning to deal with, and many want to turn a blind eye to it," said Fuenzalida, the day care director. "There is no sex education in schools, and everyone says they oppose abortion (which is illegal in Chile), but when a girl gets pregnant, no one helps her get through school.”