MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Marling del Socorro Valverdi balances a restless baby on her hip as she tries to attach yards of red and green crepe paper to a drab newsprint pinata shell.
In the Valverdi family, pinata sales equal dinner — and there are three young, hungry children who don’t want to wait.
Marling was just 16 when she had her first baby, so at 22 she is used to stretching a dollar, but exhausted by the effort. She said she thinks teen pregnancy is very common in Nicaragua, especially because many families don’t want to talk to their daughters about sex and relationships.
She is right about the larger phenomenon — the country has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, and the highest in Latin America. About half of the country’s women have a child by the time they turn 20, and nearly one of every four women will marry by the age of 19.
It’s been a hard road for Marling and her husband, and there are days they can’t afford food for everyone.
Valverdi’s situation is hardly unique in Nicaragua given the combination of high birth and poverty rates. It’s not unusual to see a woman in her mid-20s with five or six children in Managua.
While all of the causes of high teen pregnancy rates are difficult to pinpoint, some groups, including the Center for Reproductive Rights and Amnesty International, say Nicaragua’s complete ban on all abortions is part of the problem and is a threat to young women’s health.
Abortion under any circumstances, including rape or incest, is illegal in Nicaragua and punishable with jail time for both the pregnant women or any abortion providers involved. Reports have surfaced of health professionals refusing care to women with high-risk pregnancies, or with conditions like cancer, because they fear the law will apply should something go horribly wrong.
Nicaragua’s government is taking steps to provide wider access to contraceptives, however, participating in a U.N. initiative focused on 12 countries with a high level of need.
Valverdi said she never used any type of contraception, but might have if she was had been taught more about it and how it works.
“Maybe I would have used it, because with my children I wasn’t taking care of myself and that is why I had them all in a row,” she said.
And even though Nicaragua has many young mothers, that does not mean everyone is willing to help new mothers in need, Valverdi warned.
“There are places that won’t give you a job if you are a single mother,” she said.
How much money, or food, the family will have next month is an unknown. There is never enough money left over to save, and demand is unpredictable. For now, the family is making a batch of pinatas for an upcoming government celebration, and they are happy to be hard at work.