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    Reducing Violence Against Women and Girls in Guatemala Through Teen Pregnancy Prevention

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    Violence against women is a persisting problem in Guatemala. Early teen pregnancy exacerbates this issue, as many girls drop out of school to care for their child and become financially dependent on the father or family members. This can trap them in violent relationships and living situations because they are unable to financially support themselves and their children (Musalo & Bookey, 2014). Decreasing teenage pregnancy can help eliminate one of the factors that entrap Guatemalan women in this cyclical violence (UNFPA, 2014). A violent civil war desensitized much of Guatemala to violence, and normalized violence against women.

    Cultural norms discriminating against safe sex practices, such as birth control and condom use, contribute to the high rate of teen pregnancy in Guatemala (Kuder, 2009). While the Guatemalan government has passed laws to make access to family planning and contraceptives a right in Guatemala, little agency to enforce these laws has hindered real progress (Ospina, 2012). Separately, the United Nations Population Fund is currently trying to bring comprehensive sexual education to classrooms in Guatemala. While this program has complied an informative program in safe sex practices, reluctance by teachers to fully implement comprehensive sexual education curriculum has reduced its impact (Monzon et al., 2016). I suggest that Dr. Natalia Kanem, the director of the UNFPA, agree to train specialists to travel to 5 UNFPA targeted primary and secondary schools of their choosing to teach comprehensive sexual education in Guatemala City by 2020.


    Gender-based violence is a longstanding issue that permeates nearly every facet of life for women in Guatemala (Álvarez-Arenast & Dill, 2016). Gender based violence can take many forms. According to data from Guatemala’s Ministry of Public Health and Assistance, nearly 45% of women in the country have suffered some sort of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Sexual violence is becoming an increasing problem, and the age group left most vulnerable is girls aged 0 to 17 years old (Schwartz, 2018).

    Gender-based violence in the form of sexual coercion and violence contributes teen pregnancy, and also contributes to the cyclical cycle of violence as it can trap young girls in violent relationships. 88% of teenage girls that became pregnant dropped out of school to raise their child. This prevents them from finding meaningful work to support themselves and contribute to the economy. Lack of financial independence due to teen pregnancy can trap women and young girls in an abusive relationship, and perpetuate the patriarchal structure that oppresses the women of Guatemala into subordinate roles (Shwartz, 2018).

    According to the 2018 Observation of Sexual and Reproductive Health study, 51,110 girls 10 to 19 years became pregnant in the first 6 months of this year alone (OSAR, 2018). Early pregnancy and childbirth can have detrimental health effects for these young girls and their babies. Mothers are at greater risk for malnutrition, gestational diabetes, anemia, hypertension, complications during delivery, and death. Infants born to teen mothers have higher rates of premature birth, respiratory disease, low birth weight, and infant mortality (Azevedo et al., 2015). This affects the welfare of mothers and infants, and the future of the country as a whole, as medical complications and welfare assistance needed for teen pregnancy strains both the healthcare system and the economy (Azevedo et al., 2015).

    The two root causes contributing to high teen pregnancy rates in Guatemala are cultural norms that discourage safe sex practices, and a violent civil war that desensitized much of Guatemala to violence against women. Guatemala was entrenched in a 36-year civil war from 1960 to 1996 (Orgodnik & Borzutzky, 2011). Rape and gender motivated crimes were committed against women by the Guatemalan government as a war tactic to subdue opposition forces. Violence against women was normalized during this bloody time in Guatemala’s history.

    Women were even used as sex slaves in army camps, and often tortured and beaten before being murdered (Álvarez-Arenast & Dill, 2016). Many of the generals and politicians that carried out these heinous acts still hold powerful positions in Guatemala to this day. Inaction by the government officials has fostered an environment that allows violence against women to be committed with impunity (Ertürk, 2005). The continued tolerance of violence against women, and the subordinate role women hold in Guatemalan society, contributes to the levels of sexual coercion and violence inflicted upon many teen girls in Guatemala.

    Stigma surrounding safe sex practices in Guatemala has led to decreased access to sexual education and pregnancy preventatives like birth control and condoms. Abstinence is still the most culturally acceptable method of pregnancy prevention, while discussing birth control and condom use is still predominately taboo (Kuder, 2009). This puts teenagers, and girls in particular, in a vulnerable position, as they are not equipped with the right information to practice safe sex and exert their rights over their bodies. Teaching comprehensive sexual education can help reduce teen pregnancy by educating young women and men on safe sex practices, and the realities of young parenthood (UNFPA, 2014). Furthermore, teaching a comprehensive sexual education program that is tailored towards gender rights and human rights can help change cultural views of women and girls in society (UNFPA, 2014).

    Existing Solutions

    Family Planning Law

    In 2005 Guatemala passed the Universal and Equitable Access to Family Planning Services law. This controversial law approached family planning as a human rights issue, gender equality, and stated that families have the right to comprehensive consultation and reserve the right to choose the best family planning practices for them. It also stated that individuals have the right to have access to birth control and proposed working with local nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) to disseminate information on different types of family planning and how to access them (Ospina, 2012).

    Pros: Advocating for new family planning and pregnancy preventatives, such as contraceptive and condom use, was a progressive shift from Guatemala’s existing view of traditional family planning. It increased Guatemalan’s awareness of the safe sex technology available to them and declared their availability to safe sex practices and family planning as their right (Monzon et al., 2016). The passing of this law was monumental, and a shifted the legal context of family planning for Guatemala.

    Cons: The law did not address the underlying social issues that can lead to unwanted pregnancy. While passed in 2005, the controversial law faced many legal obstacles and pushback from certain religious groups and conservative organizations. It was not actually enacted until 2009, and confusion over what the law actually entailed and the details surrounding the legal rights of the patients slowed progress in its implementation (Ospina, 2012). Enforcing this family planning law has been not been as successful, as certain health care providers still refuse to discuss other forms of birth control or provide contraceptives, and outright deny contraceptives to teens (Monzon et al., 2016) Although efforts were made to disseminate knowledge of Guatemalan’s rights, it has not reached all of its citizens, especially those who live in rural areas and are often in need of it most (Ospina, 2012).

    Comprehensive Sexual Education

    One method to reduce gender-based violence is comprehensive sexual education classes at primary and secondary levels in public schools in Guatemala (UNFPA, 2014). In 2008, Guatemala agreed to nationally initiate a comprehensive sexual education (CSE) and promotion of sexual health in primary and secondary public schools that includes gender-based violence and human rights in its curriculum. It also agreed to work with organizations to complete its implementation (Prevention Through Education, 2015). One organization working to fulfill this initiative is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

    UNFPA defines CSE as a learning program with the objective of increasing sexual health competencies, with an emphasis on gender-based violence prevention and power dynamic introspection, more specifically defined through, “family life and interpersonal relationships; culture and sexuality; human rights empowerment, nondiscrimination, equality and gender roles; sexual behavior and sexual diversity; and sexual abuse, gender-based violence and harmful practices” (UNFPA, 2014). Guatemala agreed to work with international organizations, such as the UNPFA, in its implementation (UNFPA, 2014).

    Pros: Using sexual education classes as a springboard for gender-based discussions in the context of sexuality is vital in reducing gender-based violence in Guatemala. Sexual health curriculum that emphasized human rights, empowerment, and equality increased student’s self-esteem and confidence in their sexual health knowledge, and positively affected ideas regarding gender norms and communication (Monzon et al., 2016). Changing cultural attitudes towards consent and gender roles have lasting positive effects on women’s health and safety (UNFPA, 2014). Imbuing gender equality and consent at a young age before intimate relationships begin promotes healthy communication between intimate partners and reduces sexual violence (UNFPA, 2014).

    Cons: While the UNFPA is making great strides to implement CSE in schools, the most reported setback is poor comprehensive training for teachers conducting the CSE classes (Monzon et al., 2016). Although the UNFPA program aims to provide better materials to teachers, a 2015 study that surveyed 80 secondary schools in three different diverse regions in Guatemala found that while 72% of students reported learning about sexual reproduction, only 16% said they covered values and personal skills in the subject and only 32% reported learning about gender and sexual and reproductive rights (Monzon et al., 2016,). Moreover, if teachers disagree or are uncomfortable teaching certain sexual health subjects, they omit it from their lesson (Keogh et al., 2018).

    Selected Solution

    This policy brief is addressed to Dr. Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). As the director of UNFPA, Dr. Kanem has the authority to accept and implement the necessary changes to the CSE program in Guatemala. I propose that the UNFPA train specialists in comprehensive sexual education to travel to 5 UNFPA targeted primary and secondary schools of their choosing to teach CSE in Guatemala City by 2020. UNFPA is currently already implementing CSE in 500 schools across Guatemala. In its current model, teachers instructing the comprehensive sexual education curriculum usually specialize in other subjects, and teach sexual education as a supplemental part of their course.

    This can be an added stressor to their already heavy workload. It is imperative that teacher training be sufficient in both content and attitude towards sex education. In a recent study, 82% of teachers and principals believed that teenagers should remain virgins until marriage (Monzon et al., 2016). This poses a problem when teaching safe sex practices. UNFPA currently offers technical assistance through planned curriculum and teacher training in its selected schools, however UNFPA’s own report concluded that when teachers are uncomfortable with subject matter they give misinformation, such as stating that condoms do not work in pregnancy and STI prevention, or skip over the uncomfortable information in its entirety (UNFPA, 2014).

    Specialists that teach CSE classes will present the correct information in full, while helping to relieve educators who are overburdened with work in their own classes. This also allows for better monitoring over the effectiveness of CSE programs by having direct knowledge of the curriculum being taught. It is feasible for specially trained teachers to consistently teach two monthly CSE classes in 5 primary and secondary schools of UNFPA’s choosing in Guatemala City because UNPFA currently already offers technical assistance to schools in Guatemala City, and already has the culturally appropriate curriculum to disseminate in this population. UNPFA also is working towards better documentation of the effectiveness of these programs, and already obtains the standards by which it would be measured. This pilot program would be beneficial for Dr. Kanems to implement because it uses minimal resources in planning, as much of the curriculum and pedagogy to teach CSE in these schools are already established, allows for better monitoring to assess the effectiveness of the CSE program, and would also ensure the full curriculum is being used (UN, 2014). If evidence shows this approach is effective, then the UNFPA could use this approach in other countries in which UNFPA is implementing CSE programs.


    Although the financial burden of this amendment to the program is minimal, additional funding might be difficult to obtain, as the budget for implementing CSE programs in Guatemala is only $169,000 (UNFPA, 2014). However, partnering with local NGO’s to find qualified specialists to participate in this program could be a feasible alternative to training new educators. Lastly, evidence shows that changing the culture of the school has lasting impact on the effectiveness of changing attitudes on gender norms and gender rights (Wilson, 2014). The specially trained teachers facilitating this classes will be consistent, but more observation will need to be done during this project to assess the effects it has on changing the culture of the school outside of the CSE program.


    1. The Advocates for Human Rights. (2015). Submission to the Human Rights Committee for the 115th Session. (115).
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    8. Kuder, M. (2010). Globalization and Family Planning in Guatemala. The Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Ohio State University.
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