In Colombia, 8,664 girls under the age of 14 became pregnant from 2011 to September 2012, according to the latest government figures. And nearly 20 percent of teenage girls in Colombia aged 15 to 19 have been and/or are pregnant, official figures from 2012 show.
Such rates of teen pregnancy, which are among the highest in South America, don’t usually raise eyebrows in Colombia.
It’s an issue that’s often shrugged off by many Colombians, who say, “that’s just the way it is, especially in poor families.”
But debate about the urgent need to tackle the country’s high teen pregnancy rate has been sparked in Colombia's media following last week’s abduction of a 17 day-old baby by a woman in a Bogota cafe.
The mother of the baby is 14-years-old and its father - the mother’s boyfriend - is 27.
When the couple recently appeared on local news channels reunited with their baby after a three-day police search, it was the mother’s young age that did indeed raise eyebrows.
“We can’t keep silent. A girl should be studying and enjoying her childhood and not looking after babies,” Diego Molano, who heads the state child protection agency (ICBF) was quoted as saying in Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper.
The government agency has launched an investigation to determine if the mother of the abducted baby was really 14 or younger when she got pregnant.
Having sex with a child under the age of 14 is a crime in Colombia, carrying a prison sentence from 12 to 20 years. But few are convicted of the crime, and even fewer people are sent to jail.
CYCLE OF POVERTY
Teenage mothers in Colombia, like in other countries in Latin American and in the developing world, are more likely to earn less as an adult and drop out of school, making it difficult to break the cycle of poverty that grips many young mothers. They are also much more likely to become parents of children who go on to become teenage parents themselves, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The Colombian government is spearheading a multi-million dollar initiative in a bid to reduce teen pregnancy from nearly 20 percent to 15 percent by 2015 as part of the Millennium Development Goals. The initiative includes improving access to family planning and health services and sex education in schools.
But it’s clear the government campaign isn’t reaching enough girls in Colombia, especially those living in its city slums and rural areas.
In Colombia, doctors can prescribe free birth control and emergency contraception to girls over 14 years.
But too many girls aren't aware they have this right and nor do they know where to get contraception or how to use it properly. Getting birth control pills over the counter at a chemist is expensive, costing around $15 for a month’s supply.
Aside from the need to improve access to free contraception, the issue of young girls getting pregnant because of rape, often at the hands of family members or stepfathers at home, is still a taboo in Colombia. It’s considered a problem that should be dealt with behind closed doors.
There are scant official figures available to show what percentage of teen pregnancies is caused by rape in Colombia.
It’s only when the issue becomes a topic of public debate, along with high-profile convictions of those responsible for sexual abuse against girls, that Colombia will really make significant progress towards reducing its high teenage pregnancy rates.