Jessie is young. Too young. And she’s facing a situation no one in her mid-teens should have to face. Her fun, romantic, youthful fling with her boyfriend, Teo, has thrown her life into a whirlwind.
She’s pregnant. And her scholarship at a prominent Catholic school in San José is now in danger, after the nuns who run the school found out.
The story is not real, but it is “inspired by real events,” reads the advertisement for “Gestación” (“Gestation”), the upcoming new movie by Tico filmmaker Esteban Ramírez, of “Caribe” (2004) fame.
The “real events” are backed by statistics. Since 1984 – the earliest year for which statistics are available – the number of pregnancies for girls under 15 has nearly doubled to more than 500 each year, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute. The number of pregnancies for girls aged 15 to 19 has risen by 12 percent over the same time period to close to 14,000 per year.
For this reason, Bayer Schering Pharma, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Germany-based Bayer AG, is sponsoring a new sex education campaign called “Tu vida, tu decisión,” (“Your Life, Your Decision”). Also sponsored by the Vice Ministry of Youth and the National Council of Young People, the program is aimed at sparking conversation and debate across the country until the taboos that have tied down discussion are razed.
“We want to use the movie ‘Gestación’ to open up discourse on youth pregnancy in Costa Rica, so that the kids are talking about it and going to discussions in their communities,” said Adriana Márquez, head of marketing at Bayer in Costa Rica. “The idea is for them to have a basis for having a more informed sexuality.”
Vice Minister of Youth Karina Bolaños said the push for disseminating information to teens has been one of the central functions of the vice ministry. In its recent launching of the Young People’s Rights Campaign, the vice ministry narrowed down five themes it felt were most important for youth to be informed about. One of those was sexuality.
Since then, the vice ministry has worked with the United Nations and some of its subagencies, such as UNICEF, to bring about awareness through information and safety campaigns directed at teens. So far, the focus has been not on preventing pregnancy but on preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS in the two regions of the country where the virus is focused: the Caribbean Limón region and Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast.
“We have limited resources. We can’t be in all parts of the country,” Bolaños said. “But the program is extremely important because it doesn’t just train young people; it trains public officials and institutions in each community.”
Part of what prevents an open flow of information is addressed in “Gestación.” As Jessie, the protagonist, struggles with the weight of her dilemma, she also struggles with the religious ramifications and the teachings of the Catholic Church on the subject.
“The church here is very strong,” Bolaños said. “The Catholic Church is one of the problems we have.”
The church doesn’t hold sway only over what is taught in Catholic schools, however; sex education taught in all Costa Rican schools is reviewed by members of the church for approval.
“Not only can (the church review the curriculum), but it has the social responsibility to do so,” said Deacon Federico Cruz, executive secretary for the culture and education commission of the Episcopal Conference of Costa Rica, the organization that supervises what is taught.
The church continues to oppose the use of condoms because “they aren’t as safe as they say” and because the interest in selling them is “simply business,” Cruz said.
The birth control pill is also opposed. And while Bayer doesn’t produce condoms, it does produce the birth control pill Yasmin, also known as YAZ. Bayer has faced legal problems in the United States recently over claims that the pill causes heart problems.
The church is also against the promotion of alternate forms of sexual satisfaction as an alternative to intercourse, Cruz said.
“The church isn’t going to promote that,” he said. “It doesn’t help a person grow as a human. … It’s training them for prostitution.” Instead, the hard line of the church is that of abstinence, “as it’s always been,” Cruz said.
It’s a lesson he says is working, despite the rise in teen pregnancies and a recent nation-wide study by the Vice Ministry of Youth that indicate the opposite. The study found that well over half of sexually active young people – which consists of three-fourths of the population under 35 – start having sex before they turn 18. Of those under 18, fewer than half use condoms, and approximately 30 percent of girls said they use the pill.
The “Tu vida, tu decision” campaign is set to kick off tomorrow, World Contraception Day, with teens from across the country coming to the capital to ignite the discussion and carry the word back with them to their communities and organize information sessions.
“They need to decide for themselves,” Bolaños said. “They need to be taught to protect themselves and to do it responsibly, if they’re going to become sexually active.”