ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — After school, 14-year-old Doris Diaz tosses her books aside with one thing on her mind: her daughter.
Doris lives with her parents, and visits her boyfriend occasionally — but she is in the “vast minority of those whose boyfriends are still in the picture,” says Alyssa Rodriguez, who serves with Mennonite Mission Network in Ecuador.
Doris’s story isn’t unusual. Ecuador joins Venezuela and Colombia in having the largest population of teen mothers in Latin America. According to a study by Ecuador’s public health ministry, 17 percent of girls ages 15-19 have at least one child.
But in the Jardines del Inca (Gardens of the Inca) neighborhood, “teen” mothers are as young as 10.
In an ecumenical effort to establish healthy relationships between Ecuadorian youth, Quito Mennonite Church started a center called Vida Juvenil (Youth Life). Rodriguez lives in the neighborhood and is one of the leaders at the center. She began her assignment with Mennonite Mission Network and Central Plains Mennonite Conference in March 2013.
In its early stages, Vida Juvenil is still developing relationships in the community. Program personnel try to emphasize their love and concern for all people, regardless of church affiliation. Rodriguez said that some people in the community worry that the center will impose its theological perspectives on people who are Catholic. “We’re just trying to help people,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said that often pregnancies result from sexual violence. At Vida Juvenil, Rodriguez addresses this by leading workshops about healthy relationships and how to deal with conflict. The first workshops addressed basic terminology and myths related to sexuality, to equip people with the vocabulary to talk about the topic.
“Sex is taboo,” said Rodriguez. One woman that participates in Vida Juvenil didn’t receive sex education until college. Others received the education, but didn’t pay attention. Currently, the Ecuadorian government suggests teaching sex education at age 10.
Vida Juvenil’s workshops are for teens, but also adults.
Cesar Moya, the pastor at Quito Mennonite Church, explained the importance of working with parents. “It’s like people drowning at one end of the river and your solution being to pull them out afterward. We’ve got to start from the beginning to prevent [these] problems from occurring in the first place.”
Since teen mothers have extra responsibilities and little extra time for homework, Vida Juvenil seeks to help girls finish their studies before becoming mothers. According to Rodriguez, some teen mothers work during the day to support their children, and attend school at night. So grandmothers often raise the children.
Above all, Rodriguez wants to provide youth with a haven. “A place to feel safe, and turn to if they have questions about the topic, about relationships, if they’re feeling abused,” said Rodriguez.