In Brazil, the country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America, the government is trying to send out a new message: stop, reflect, enjoy your teens – and do not get pregnant.
It is a novel approach, but one they hope will bring down the rate once and for all.
The campaign is called “Adolescence first, pregnancy after”. It is jointly run by the health ministry and the ministry of women, family and human rights. And they are targeting their audience on social media using the hashtag #tudonoseutempo (all in good time).
“It didn’t come from an insight, from a moment of madness from a fundamentalist minister,” says Damares Alves, the minister for women, family and human rights who is also an evangelical pastor.
“It’s been a year of talking because we need to bring the numbers down. We had the courage to say we are going to talk about delaying the start of sexual relations.”
For Brazil’s growing number of evangelicals, this is welcome news.
Fifteen-year-old Isabela Brito is part of a youth group at Paz Church in Tatuape, a district of São Paulo.
“When you have a relationship before getting married, you’re connecting with that person and it can come with consequences like pregnancy and illness,” she says. “So I think you’re saving that moment for when you marry, when it’s very important.”
Although the ministers did not use the word “abstinence” when they launched the campaign, one of the organisations Ms Alves consulted was Eu Escolhi Esperar (I decided to wait), a Brazilian abstinence group that was started by evangelical pastor Nelson Junior.
Nelson Junior explains that Ms Alves spoke to him about trying to bring similar organisations over from the United States but that it had never worked out. Now – as a minister – she saw her chance and the evangelical pastor could not be happier.
“Why not tell people to wait?,” he asks. “It’s logical, not ideological or religious. One thing we need to overcome here in Brazil is this new debate that everything that comes from religion is bad.”
Danie Sampaio feels strongly that religion is part of the problem. She is a doula and birth-support activist who works with teenage girls in some of São Paulo’s poorest suburbs.
She introduces me to 20-year-old Vitoria Maria de Oliveira who, at 36 weeks pregnant with her first child, is the last of her friends to have a baby.
“I started having sex at 15,” she tells me, explaining that she was not given much sex education until she was 16 or 17. Her family does not like to talk about sex.
When she found out she was pregnant, Vitória was shocked.
She starts off by saying that she thinks abstinence sounds like a wise idea – but then adds that being told how to avoid getting pregnant would have been more useful to her.
She would not consider abortion and thinks there is no place for condoms. “They’re monsters,” she says, adding that few teenagers like to use them. She even suggests girls sometimes think their partners are being presumptuous if they are carrying condoms and that can start an argument.
Information, not abstinence
“We need to talk more with women to break down taboos and beliefs that constrain women, beliefs that are just passed on by their mothers and grandmothers,” says Danie Sampaio, adding that a macho culture and hyper-sexualisation of women in Brazil are the biggest obstacles to bringing teenage pregnancies down.
“Abstinence is not the path, information is: understanding your body and saying ‘no’.”
The government says they will continue to give out information on contraceptives, encourage teens to talk to their families and seek out health advice. But critics say more needs to be done in improving sex education in schools.
Helena Bertho, editorial director of Azmina feminist magazine, is one of those critics. “The focus should be on making sex education work better but it’s going in the other direction,” she says.
“They [the government] will not have both [abstinence and sex education] because having both would mean making sex education better. Abstinence is something that you believe in. You shouldn’t run a campaign for young people not to have sex, you should educate them to say it’s one of the options.”
Religion or science?
Beliefs, and even religions are being confused with scientific evidence,” says Rossana Francisco, president of the Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in São Paulo state. “Health is determined by scientific evidence.”
With a conservative government, a focus on religion should not come as a surprise but it is cause for concern for some.
“There’s a myth that when you offer sex education, you increase the interest in sex but we need to seize all the opportunities for adolescents to be able to talk about life choices, contraceptive methods and choosing the moment to be a mother.”