See the Global Voices special coverage about How Women Fight Gender Violence in Latin America.
La Ribera used to be a family estate in Sangolquí, Ecuador, a suburb of Quito. The house's white walls and wooden beams are surrounded by trees, and a river swirls nearby. There, the Jijón family lived for three generations. As the years passed, children moved away and the home was abandoned.
On October 2019, the property was once again filled with food, laughter, and fun. Carolina Reed, the daughter-in-law of the previous owner, Alfredo Jijón, turned the abandoned house, where her husband grew up, into the Casa La Ribera, a project promoting overall health, emotional wellbeing, and autonomy of women between the ages of 14 and 24 who are pregnant or young mothers. The project is run by the Fundación Alfredo Jijón and Plan Internacional.
For now, due to the measures taken to slow down the spread of COVID-19, the program's support is provided from afar. The women in charge call the participants every day to see how they are doing and send them activities for their babies twice a day. They are also managing handouts of food and cleaning supplies.
In this interview, Carolina Reed, the Director of Casa La Ribera, talks about the program.
Belén Febres (BF): How did the idea for the program originate?
Carolina Reed (CR): When we stopped visiting our house in Sangolquí, we felt the need to put it to good use. My brother-in-law and father-in-law were gynecologists and they were brilliant men, that's why we decided that converting the house into a space dedicated to pregnant women and young mothers would be a good way to remember them.
There were already some programs in place for preventing pregnancy and providing shelter for young mothers in Ecuador, which is the Latin American country with the highest rate of teen pregnancies. However, I couldn't find any specifically dedicated to empowering women with a focus on women's rights. That´s why I decided to create one.
BF: In what way do you apply this focus [on women's rights] to your project?
CR: Teen pregnancy facilitates the violation of certain rights, such as the right to health, education and a life free from violence. Our work is based on the belief that we are all entitled to human rights and that pregnancy should not be a limiting factor in those rights. That's why our focus is not on charity work, it's an overall effort to ensure that the rights of those young women who are pregnant or have children are respected.
BF: What are the main objectives of the work?
CR: We have two main objectives, health and autonomy. We provide integral and personalised support for the physical and emotional health of the young women. We emphasise the right to a healthy pregnancy and birth, and to respectful, quality health services. As well as access to information and the detection and prevention of violence.
We also put a lot of emphasis on mental health. We have a full-time psychologist and offer group therapies and workshops on various topics.
The second objective of our work is autonomy. First, we endeavour to have the young women graduating from school. We are in contact with the education institutions to ensure that the girls can count on receiving the necessary tools to achieve this objective.
We also look forward to coordinate with the Ministry of Education so that the women who can not attend school in person can reintegrate into the system or have access to distance learning from Ribera.
We also focus on economic autonomy. We work with other organisations so that the young women can go to university, get a good job or start their own business. That way they can reach their maximum potential.
The emphasis we place on autonomy is extremely important. Many of the girls are victims of violence in their homes and it is fundamental that they have sufficient economic support to leave. Without that support it would be impossible.
BF: What is the connection between teen pregnancy and violence?
CR: There is a strong link between the two. First, the pregnancy of an underage girl is an act of violence in itself. There is also a socioeconomic violence that comes from within the country. Many of our participants live in alarming situations of poverty, and this limits their ability to exercise their rights.
Second, there is a physical and psychological violence which is naturalised in their houses, whether it be by their parents, relatives, or partners. There are also many cases of sexual violence, with some cases of rape and even group rape.
Finally, there is the institutional violence. There is a stigma related to teen pregnancy and it tends to be the woman who is blamed. The La Ribera Program breaks down those notions because we do not judge. We offer acceptance and respect.
BF: How do situations of crisis, such as the pandemic we are experiencing at the moment, affect the rights of young women?
CR: [Crises] make it easier to see the socioeconomic differences and the instability in which many of our participants are living. For example, at times like this, hygiene is fundamental. One of our girls didn´t have drinking water [at home]. Many have been left with no income and without the means of buying even basic necessities.
They are about to give birth or have recently had babies and are having great difficulty in accessing the necessary health services, or finding support, which was already limited. They are alone and afraid. What´s more, the fact that they cannot leave their houses significantly increases the risk of domestic or family violence. In these circumstances, the support we provide is even more crucial.
BF: What results have you seen in the short time the project has been running?
CR: So far, the Ribera Program has brought support to 20 women, and soon there will be 10 more. We have seen changes that have made us really happy. For example, one of the girls had left school because of her pregnancy and has now returned to her studies. Some arrived with very low self-esteem and are now more confident and have started to feel more optimistic about their future. It is also very rewarding to watch as the bond between mother and baby grow. This motivates us to keep working to provide these women with a safe space where they can find trust and support as well as the strength to leave the circle of poverty and violence and achieve their dreams.