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Inside the Christian Shelter Where No Girl Is Too Young to Have a Baby

Inside the Christian Shelter Where No Girl Is Too Young to Have a Baby

December 15, 2022, 7:30am

By Nathaniel Janowitz

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay—Gabriela was 17, pregnant, and out of options.

In her hometown in rural Paraguay, Gabriela found a local doctor who offered to give her a clandestine procedure for 3 million guaraníes, or roughly $400. For a senior in high school whose family didn’t know she was pregnant in one of South America’s poorest nations, that was basically impossible. So Gabriela saved up her money and bought cheap blackmarket abortion pills that didn’t work.

The father of the baby, a much older non-blood relative, insisted she keep the pregnancy a secret, Gabriela said. At the suggestion of a local pastor she was sent to a church-run facility 100 miles away in a suburb of the capital Asunción: the Rosa Maria House. Gabriela told her family she was going on a “spiritual retreat” but instead went to live at the house where she’d receive free room and board and have the baby.

The Rosa Maria House is part of a network of several dozen church-run homes throughout Paraguay for children. But its specialty is taking in pregnant girls as young as 10, often referred by the authorities after being abused by family members or people close to the family, then facilitating the birth of the child, and training them to become mothers. As Gabriela waited for her baby to arrive, she would be given classes on changing diapers, cooking, and other skills needed to care for babies and toddlers.

In Paraguay, where abortion is completely outlawed except to save the life of the mother, people often face an impossible dilemma: carry the unwanted fetus to term or face possible jail time if they manage to successfully abort. Gabriela’s case was even trickier. When she got pregnant, she hid her pregnancy from her mother, embarrassed by the fact that the father was a much older man who already had a wife and children of his own. “I didn’t know what [a condom] was,” she said.

“I even tried to commit suicide, I wanted to have an abortion. My life was a disaster back then,” Gabriela, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told VICE World News. “I wanted to study medicine, I already had everything figured out, where I had to take the course, how much the books would cost.”

Gabriela, now in her mid-twenties, described her childhood as “very difficult,” and said that she was sexually abused as a child by a different older man in her life—her former stepfather. She never met her own father, and when she became pregnant she feared her mother would be ashamed “because she also got pregnant with us [her and her siblings] very young and she didn’t want us to go through that situation again,” she said.

But when she arrived at the Rosa Maria House, she realized she was far from the most difficult case there.

“There I came across the reality of many more girls who were in much worse situations than mine,” she said. “There were girls of 12 or 13 years old who were already pregnant because of being raped that were brought in by the police.”

She said that many of the girl’s didn’t “know how to read, many came from far away, they didn’t have the chance to go to school.”

She was grateful for the meals and relative safety of the Rosa Maria House, but she didn’t like losing her freedom. They confiscate the girls’ cell phones and do not allow them to communicate with people outside besides arranged visits with family, she said. She didn’t like being bossed around, “that they tell me to do this or do that,” such as chores, praying in the on-site chapel, or certain lessons.

But still, she considered it a mostly positive experience, and loves her child —who she continues to raise today—very much. She was especially appreciative that through the shelter she met a professor who helped her obtain a partial scholarship to attend university after she eventually graduated high school.

“They gave me the medicines that I had to take, and do the [medical exams]. They helped me a lot in that sense…They give you everything there: they gave you food, they gave you clothes,” said Gabriela. “There were cooking classes. People taught some subjects so they can read, write. Those were the good things that I saw, that nobody needs anything. They got all the support.”

The Rosa Maria House is in a nondescript white brick house on a quiet street in a nice-ish residential suburb of Asunción. After repeated attempts to call the house with no answer, VICE World News showed up at their door and was greeted by Oscar Ávila, an elderly bald man in charge of the shelter. He gave a short interview, and tour of the common areas of the house, like the chapel, the kitchen, and the courtyard with one condition—speaking with girls was off limits.

Over the past 22 years, young girls living in the shelter have given birth to over 230 babies, Ávila said. He believed that by facilitating young girls to give birth, he was doing God’s work, even if the mothers were children themselves, some of whom became pregnant after being raped by adult neighbors and family members.

“Why are you going to kill the child if you’re not going to kill the father? He who made the mess, that’s who should die,” said Ávila. As he spoke, a young girl walked past his small office in the center. He called out to her, asking her age.

“13,” she responded quietly. He nodded, and told her she could continue on, seemingly proud of showing off the work he was doing.

The Rosa Maria House is supported by a local parish and donations, said Ávila, while refusing to go into further detail besides saying that “we belong to a pro-life organization that is not very well seen in the New World Order.”

Young girls aged around 12 or 13 wandered around the shelter carrying small children when VICE World News visited in March 2022. The building was made up of a few offices and a chapel where the girls were sent to pray. A courtyard was littered with children’s toys and strollers. The smell of lunch permeated the building as a couple of girls cooked in the kitchen.

While a number of the girls are pregnant from relationships with kids in their own age range, others were brought in by state care after their families either abandoned them or took them to the police or hospital looking for help. Many girls arrived after direct intervention by authorities because their family members were the ones hurting them, and their homes were no longer considered safe.

The girls kept their eyes low, seemingly nervous of the presence of an outsider listening to Ávila explain how young girls have an intrinsic “maternal capacity.” Many of the girls just refer to Ávila as abuelo, or “grandfather” in English.

“Even if they’re 10 or 12 years old, the young girls that we receive actually have the most love for their children,” said Ávila. The fact that the mothers were still children themselves, he argued, made the connection between the mother and child even closer.

The house supports the girl’s medical treatments at a local hospital before, during the birth at the hospital, and afterward as they learn to become mothers at the house, only letting them leave the shelter for doctor’s appointments, and Sunday mass at a nearby church. Ávila didn’t worry about the health effects of young girls giving birth, claiming that every child has survived over the past 22 years, both mother and baby.

Paraguay is arguably South America’s most conservative and religious country. Children and teens who become pregnant see little option beyond giving birth, whether they want to be mothers or not. Draconian abortion laws, a mobilized Christian resistance to sex education in schools, and widespread abuse has created a child pregnancy epidemic. With abortion illegal even in the most extreme cases of abuse, shelters like the Rosa Maria House are one of the few options for pregnant children and teens.

In a nation of only 7 million inhabitants, roughly 12,000 girls between 15 and 19 gave birth in 2019, and 1,000 girls aged 14 or younger gave birth between 2019 and 2020, according to Amnesty International. An average of two girls between 10 and 14 give birth everyday with 80 percent of the cases coming from within the family unit — the second highest rate in South America after Venezuela.

A second woman who lived at the Rosa Maria House as a teen and gave birth to her child at age 18 while there also told VICE World News that the people who ran the house treated her well. Both of the women who spent time at the house said that they experienced no abuse there, nor saw any against the other girls during their time there.

The woman, who was 18 when she gave birth and also asked to remain anonymous, recalled that the house also provided “psychological support.”

“Many psychologists came and there were two or three, the ones who always came constantly to have conversations with those girls who were the ones with the most complicated and emotional situations, which could lead to depression.” 

She also said the girls were young. “I was the oldest of all of them,” she said. “They were all minors, 11, 12, 13, 14, up to 15.”

“I thought that I was the person who has suffered the most in life and that what I have gone through, it would happen to very few, but no,” she said. “Really, when I went there and heard the story of those girls, I said: my God, thank you Lord, because I seriously cried with every story that I heard.”

The Rosa Maria House offered classes in what it appears to consider to be practical careers for young mothers. “We practically started studying because people came to give us private classes,” she said. “We were learning things and manicures, pedicures, makeup, whether it was massage, we did hairdressing.”

That girls would see their stay at the Rosa Maria House as a somewhat positive experience doesn’t surprise Alejandra Rodríguez from ENFOQUE Niñez, a non profit organization that has worked with different shelters since 2005. Many of the girls who end up at the shelter and homes like it are simply grateful to have food and to be protected from abuse.

“A girl who lived subjected to all kinds of violence before, either at home or wherever she was, and suddenly she is in a place where she receives certain pressures but at least she is already protected from sexual abuse, it is a significant change in her life,” said Rodríguez. “Because she also has a plate of food and the possibility of studying, without having to give anything in return.”

But she expressed concern that those in charge of shelters like the Rosa Maria House do not truly consider “the complexity of the situation of a pregnant girl or adolescent.” She said that the directors of these institutions speak with “great pride that they [the girls] are taught to be mothers, without questioning whether or not they want to be.”

“That loss of status as a girl or teenager, due to the fact of the responsibility of being a mother, was very apparent,” she said.

There are 35 shelters in Paraguay that host children, but only one that exclusively focuses on pregnant girls, according to a 2020 ENFOQUE Niñez report titled How Do We Protect? When Do We Protect?. Rodriguez said that the quality of these shelters can vary, and that in the majority “there are very little personnel, with very little preparation.”

“In some shelters, for example, the use of medicalization. That is, the use of psychiatric or neurological medication to control behavior,” she said.

In May, a children’s shelter near the border with Brazil and Argentina was shut down after authorities discovered that its residents were allegedly being mistreated by women mostly posing as nuns.

“The biggest problem is that the highest authorities are not listening to the specialists that address the situation of children, who are abused daily in Paraguay,” Rosalia Vega, Amnesty International Paraguay’s executive director, told VICE World News in the NGO’s office in Asunción.

The government repeatedly failed to implement a 2018 law that aimed to consolidate comprehensive care for child and teen sexual abuse victims. The changes would have given survivors of child and adolescent sexual abuse a single pathway to non-religious based care without having to be repeatedly retraumatized by having to constantly retell their stories to authorities. Instead, Vega said that authorities are involved in “perverse games.” Evangelical groups have become intertwined with politicians, she said, and political promises related to anti-abortion and sexual education legislations are made to popular evangelical leaders in return for the support of their congregations. “Whether you like it or not, these sectors of the Church are sectors of power in our society,” she said.

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