San Pedro, El Salvador – Fourteen-year-old Maria* dreams of becoming a lawyer.
It is an ambitious goal for the daughter of two manual labourers with few resources in the poor town of San Pedro, El Salvador.
Despite the challenges, Maria said she has always been determined, often running home directly from school to immediately start her homework.
But Maria’s instinctive inquisitiveness now comes with reservations. When she was 13 years old, she said she was walking on the unlit path from school to home when a masked man attacked and raped her.
In the weeks after the rape, Maria went to a well-known government programme called “Ciudad Mujer”, which has centres across the country that provide healthcare, training and childcare for women.
There, she found psychological, medical and legal help to begin to cope with the rape, but when she missed her period, she had doctors confirm she was also pregnant.
“I was worried,” Maria recalled. “If my parents would help me, if I could continue studying,” she told Al Jazeera.
Maria’s concern is common among girls and young women who become pregnant in El Salvador. A conservative Catholic country, El Salvador has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, and due to high levels of violence against women and deep-rooted stigma surrounding teen pregnancy, there are few options for young girls who become pregnant.
Adolescents comprise one in three pregnancies in El Salvador. For girls who do become pregnant, dropping out of school is one of their only options.
“In many cases, school principals say, ‘We don’t want them here. It will motivate other children to become pregnant,'” said Erika Guevara, a Ciudad Mujer Programmes Coordinator.
According to the United Nations, 60 percent of young girls in El Salvador who become pregnant between the ages of 10 and 17 had already dropped out of school before becoming pregnant. Of those who were in school when they got pregnant, the majority dropped out within two years of having a baby.
Maria said she immediately told her parents about the rape and pregnancy, but not her friends or anyone else in the community due to the stigma surrounding teen pregnancy. She eventually stopped going to classes, but has hopes of returning at some point in the future.
Many teenage mothers who have dropped out of school are typically expected to work in the home of their partner’s or father of their child’s family or the informal sector to generate some income.
A “vicious cycle” develops, whereby their daughters are raised in poverty and become teenage mothers themselves, according to health clinic practitioners and officials with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Esmeralda Javier, 18, was born to a teenage mother and raised in poverty. By the time she was 13 years old, she was pregnant. Her father pulled her out of school and sent her to live with her partner’s family, but she had a miscarriage and left the family several months later.
I only felt like I wanted to die when I thought of my future. I felt like I didn't have a future.
At 14 years old, Javier met another partner. He was 22 years old. By the time Javier was 16, they were living together and she dropped out of school again. A year later they had a daughter. Javier’s partner works two caretaker jobs.
“I dropped out of school because I had a boyfriend. I’m in love,” Javier said. “I needed to feel loved, honestly. I had a life without hope, without love, without support.”
Javier said when she was younger she struggled when she thought about her future.
“I only felt like I wanted to die when I thought of my future. I felt like I didn’t have a future,” she told Al Jazeera.
She now hopes her daughter won’t have to experience what she did, saying she wants her to have “a splendid future”.
“Not like what I had,” she told Al Jazeera. “And that she doesn’t suffer all of the things that I had to suffer.”
High levels of sexual violence
The lack of sex education and cycle of poverty is further compounded by the prevalence of sexual violence in the country.
According to the government, about 38 percent of Salvadoran girls between the ages of 10 and 12 in 2012 said they have been forced to have sex, often by members of their family or household. And although rape and marriage of girls under the age of 18 is illegal, many perpetrators go unpunished.
In rape cases of girls under 15 years old from 2013 to 2015, about 10 percent had a conviction, local media reported.
Guevara sees it as one indicator of the machismo culture in El Salvador.
“Often impunity completely frustrates me”, whether due to police investigations or the judiciary, Guevara said. “If there’s no sentence, there’s no restitution for the victims.”
Maria’s attacker is still free. She said life is “more difficult for girls. Because sometimes they suffer violence, sometimes sexual.”
“That happened to me. That’s why girls suffer,” she said, adding that she’d want her attacker to be punished.
According to the UN, the government and local communities must raise the consciousness of men, parents and young girls about their rights and risks. The UNFPA and World Health Organization (WHO) advise countries to foster comprehensive sexual education, demand for health services, youth development strategies and prevention of violence to bring down teen pregnancy figures.
Parents should provide sexual education, backed up by the public sector, said Hugo Gonzalez, El Salvador Representative for the UNFPA. But, Gonzalez added, parents often neglect this, especially, “when you have the rapist living at home”.
The UNFPA is helping to provide funding for the government’s national strategy to eliminate teen pregnancy and providing some teacher materials on sex education. These materials include a course on sex education for teachers and a basic guide for parents. It also lobbies Parliament to make sex education compulsory by law.
But the few books it has provided have not been bolstered by government funding for implementation, Gonzalez said. Meanwhile, social stigma often stops girls from accessing contraception.
Javier didn’t receive sex education and said she wouldn’t ask for contraception at her community health clinic due to “the shame”.
“You can be judged, you can get in trouble,” she said. “Other people might hear and might tell someone else. They might ask what is she up to that she needs this.”
The government health clinic is trying to change attitudes. It does school outreach and a monthly group for parents, to talk about violence, high-risk behaviour and teen pregnancy.
“The problem is a cultural one,” said Blanca Estela, a clinic officer. “Parents don’t like us to talk about contraception, sex. There are many churches here and they still think its a sin.”
Additionally, abortion is illegal under all circumstances in the country.
Campaigners have been pushing to change El Salvador’s abortion laws, but have had little success.
Bills to loosen the total ban failed to pass in the national legislature last year. The proposals aimed to allow abortions in certain circumstances, including for minors who have been raped or when the mother’s health is at risk.
More funding needed
For those who are already mothers, there appear few avenues back to their schooling or into the formal workforce. One study cited by the UNFPA said 29 percent of teen mothers were expecting or had a second child two years after their first. Another UNFPA study examined the economic effects of teen pregnancy, finding that a teen mother is worth five times less to the economy throughout her life than a woman who gives birth at 23, due to reduced income tax revenues and wasted education spending.
The government has taken some steps to promote girls’ rights and try to prevent teen pregnancy. The Law for the Comprehensive Protection of Children and Adolescents, passed in 2010, upholds unalienable rights, including educational and healthcare access.
The Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU), a state body, works with and coordinates ministries to implement it.
But Emily Flores, ISDEMU’s director for gender equality, said funding is limited.
“Teen pregnancy is a priority. But the government is in a position of austerity, it does not want to spend a lot,” she told Al Jazeera.
Flores said instead, ISDEMU must look to outside entities, such as USAID (United States Agency for International Development) or the UNFPA.
Unlike most, Maria has the support of her family.
“I really want to go back to school,” she said, adding that she still wants to be a lawyer. “My dad said he’d get someone to help to look after the baby.”
But her goal is now much harder to achieve. Both her parents work and Maria looks after her eight-year-old brother and seven-month-old son.
She said the hardest part of being a mum is “not sleeping during the night”.
But she is slowly adjusting.
“I like spending time with him. I hadn’t felt like this, but now when I’m with him I feel it. I’m happy to have a baby,” she said.
*Name has been changed to protect the minor’s identity.