“Don’t be with too many boys,” 18-year-old Maria Luisa Rodriguez recalls her mother telling her. “After 7 p.m., stay at home.”
But that was the extent of sexual education she received before becoming pregnant at the age of 16. Now, she is five months pregnant with her second child.
This is considered common advice in the Dominican Republic, where more than one in 10 teenage girls became pregnant in 2013, according to the United Nations Population Fund. That’s double the world average and triple the United States average.
In this Caribbean country where abortion is illegal under any circumstance, sex is taboo. While adolescents are told not to have sex, they are hardly taught about it, contributing to the country’s booming number of juvenile mothers.
“Before I got pregnant, I did not know anything about sex,” said 16-year-old Pamela Pinales, who is seven months pregnant with her first child.
And expecting a baby at a young age isn’t new in this predominantly Roman Catholic country, where churches and doctors often collide over the use of contraceptives.
Asked at what age she became pregnant, the mother of 16-year-old Gabriella Javier, who is seven months pregnant with her first child, blushed with embarassment, laughed, and said 14.
The mother and daughter sit in the waiting room at Maternidad Nuestra Señora la Altagracia in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital, as a nurse points at a diagram, explaining how to use a condom.
But for the more than 30 pregnant teenagers in the room, it is about preventing another pregnancy.
As Lilian Guerrero, 39, who has been a gynecologist at the maternity ward for seven years, put it: “If there was a first pregnancy, [we] avoid a second one.”
For some in the room, getting pregnant meant being forced out of their homes. Fortunately for 15-year-old Allyah Michelle, who is five months pregnant with her first child, her mother has accepted the fact she will be a grandparent at the age of 35 and is beginning to embrace it.
“Because I don’t have a baby boy, that’s going to be my son,” Allyah’s mother, Aime—who first became pregnant at the age of 19—said, pointing at her daughter’s plump stomach.
Allyah, the oldest of three sisters, proudly responded: “Most girls give their babies to their moms, but I’m going to be different because it’s my responsibility.”
But like nearly every other teen interviewed for this project, Allyah, who called her pregnancy “God willing,” was never informed at home or in school about sex and the resources available to avert it.
In the tropical, mountainous region of San Cristobal known as Jamey, Juan Toledo Encarnacion, director of the Victoriano Ceballos Diaz Elementary School, said neither the elementary nor the high school is equipped to teach sexual education.
“We don’t have a teacher [qualified] to handle that subject,” said Encarnacion, who has been the director for 30 years. “But we give them advice about waiting for the correct time to have babies and getting married.”
In Jamey, where drivers carry people in pickup trucks to and from the top and bottom of the mountain on a single, winding road, teenage pregnancy is flourishing.
At Encarnacion’s school of 250 students, about 10 girls drop out each year because they are expecting babies. One of those girls is 16-year-old Yesenia, who is four months pregnant with the child of a 73-year-old man.
“[There is] no education, no prevention lectures,” said Guerrero, whose teenage-specific maternity ward in the capital assists about 80 patients each day. “They do not [know] about planification [contraception] and start very young to have sex.”
In hopes of counteracting the alarming number of pregnant teenagers and creating a dialogue about sex, the country, which, according to NPR’s Latino USA, has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in Latin America, launched a plan in January 2015 to implement sex education at all its public schools.
As opposed to teaching about contraceptives, something the country has tried with previous programs, this new strategy is based on morals and values.
Using books and games, teachers will advise and educate students to wait to have sex until they are “educated, economically stable, loving each other, and that’s the way it should be, that’s a blessing,” said Maria Guillen, who has worked at the country’s Ministry of Education for more than 25 years.
Guillen said each of the ministry’s 18 regional offices are assigned to work with several schools on the initiative conceived by the office of Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, the country’s vice president.
“We need to take into account the biological, psychological, cognitive and social aspects,” Guillen said.
Still, when one walks through an area like Jamey, where pregnant teenagers and young mothers live at nearly every fifth house, it is hard to believe much is being done.
“Each life plan a student has gets broken when there is a pregnancy,” Guillen said. “It breaks and changes his or her life plan and this affects families, society and the country.”