School closure, sex crimes send teen pregnancy skyrocketing in Panama
By Ana de Leon
Panama City, Aug 16 (EFE).- The number of teen pregnancies in Panama doubled in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, a phenomenon linked to the closure of schools – the most prolonged in the world – and the rise in sexual crimes, experts on the matter told EFE.
In 2019, there were 4,652 reported pregnancies in girls and young women ages 10-19, while in 2020 there were 9,724, more than double the earlier figure. The largest incidence of teen pregnancies occurred in the Ngabe Bugle district and in Chiriqui province, both areas bordering Costa Rica, and in the metro zone of the Panamanian capital.
“This significant increase in teenage pregnancy in 2020 must be linked to the context. Without having any data for 2021, we cannot de-link it from the inactivity in the school sector or from the increase in sexual crimes,” Eusebia Solis, a sociologist and human rights expert, told EFE.
Solis said that “in some places, like in the Ngabe district, there’s been a 143 percent increase… (a) reality that is saying that in the indigenous districts teen pregnancies are remaining quite high, and that translates into perpetuating poverty and inequality.”
A UNICEF report released last March said that Panama was the world’s country with the largest number of days without in-person or semi-in-person education, after the government closed the country’s schools in March 2020 due to the pandemic.
Currently, about 1,000 of the 3,933 public and private schools in Panama are providing semi-in-person classes or tutorials – of just a few hours on certain days each week – according to official information.
In Solis’s judgment, the “educational system is a protective factor,” which guarantees not only “that a student gets educated but also that the schools protect the physical, psychological, biological and sexual integrity of the population.”
She also linked the increase in teen pregnancies to sexual crimes, since in 2019 280 cases of “corruption of minors, commercial sexual exploitation and other conduct” were registered and in 2020 there were 289 such cases, but this year in just the first seven months – through the end of July – there were 282, according to government figures.
“The majority of the victims” of sexual crimes “are 10 years old or younger, in primary school,” said Solid, adding that “the increase in teen pregnancy goes hand in hand with the increase in sexual crimes and these are increasing significantly where the pregnancy rates are high,” among young children.
“As long as children are not being educated from early on, we’ll continue to have these problems,” said Solis, adding that in Panama’s schools “discussion of menstruation is given, but from the biological point of view and not regarding what that implies sociologically.”
Along those lines, the Palabras Poderorxs organization, which focuses on menstrual and sexual education, is organizing free workshops in low-income communities to provide the public with basic understanding about menstruation.
In Panama City’s colonial Old Town, which is adjacent to the El Chorrillo residential neighborhood, one of the capital’s most violent districts, the members of the organization are giving a workshop to teens who have already given birth to children no older than 2.
Within a space that offers the young mothers the chance to finish their high school studies while being able to care for their children, the group of about 20 women is discovering how their reproductive organs and work and how the menstrual cycle operates.
“In the schools they speak about it very little … There exists much disinformation around the issue of menstruation and sex education,” the head of Palabras Poderosxs, attorney Claudia Vidal, told EFE.
After the experience of giving courses in assorted communities, Vidal emphasized that “women aren’t familiar with the body they inhabit, they aren’t familiar with the (body) parts or why they menstruate,” a lack of knowledge that brings with it a lack of control over their menstrual cycle, which results in their committing “many mistakes that lead to unwanted pregnancies.”