Paraguay: Girls Forced To Be Mothers | Translation

Paraguay: Girls Forced To Be Mothers | Translation


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[Daniel Alarcón]: Hello ambulantes! I’m Daniel Alarcón. As we mentioned last week, we’re taking a well-deserved break. But in the meantime, we’re sharing episodes of El Hilo, the other podcast from Radio Ambulante Estudios. El Hilo is a great way to understand a region as complex as Latin America. We release new episodes every Friday on various podcast platforms.

Today’s story is about the crisis of child and adolescent pregnancy in Paraguay. It’s a problem fueled by the lack of resources, sexual violence, and the influence of conservative sectors. This episode is intense, but we believe it’s a reality that you should be aware of.

I’ll leave you with the episode.

[Oscar Ávila]: Come over here a bit.

[Ávila]: Ejumi, (speaking in Guaraní). I’m asking you to bring another child. What’s your baby’s name?

[Young Woman]: Eylen, Beatriz.

[Ávila]: And what’s your name?

[Young Woman]: Liz.

[Ávila]: How old are you?

[Young Woman]: 14.

[Silvia Viñas]: He is Óscar Ávila, the man in charge of Casa Rosa María in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. This shelter welcomes pregnant girls and adolescents. The house was created, Ávila says…

[Ávila]: To help those in need. Girls going through unexpected pregnancies. It’s one of the most vulnerable populations worldwide. The Lord said the best thing to do is to welcome innocent children. Children who might have been aborted.

[Eliezer]: With pride, he recounts that in the last two decades, Casa Rosa María has assisted in the birth of over 200 babies. Ávila believes that girls, even those as young as 10, are prepared to be mothers.

[Ávila]: Once they see their baby, they feel that maternal capacity they have, which is called the love of continuity. They have what is called a maternal capacity. Even if they are 10 or 12 years old, the youngest ones we receive are the ones who love their child the most.

[Silvia]: In Paraguay last year, 470 girls aged 10 to 14 gave birth, and 40 were hospitalized for abortion, according to official data from the Ministry of Health of Paraguay. Most of these pregnancies result from rape within the family. In 2020, the United Nations Population Fund launched a campaign against early pregnancy in the country with the slogan: “A pregnant girl is an abused girl.”

[Eliezer]: Paraguay is considered by some experts as a kind of laboratory for anti-rights ideas, with a deep influence from the Church and anti-abortion movements. In 2017, it became the first country in the world to ban gender issues in schools. At that time, the Minister of Education, Enrique Riera, said he could burn books with gender content in a public square.

[Silvia]: The country’s public policies for sexual prevention and education are insufficient, and the prohibition of abortion is almost total, even if the pregnancy resulted from rape. To understand the consequences of this reality and the roots that sustain it, one only needs to open the doors of a place: Casa Rosa María in Asunción, where no girl is considered too young to be a mother.

[Eliezer]: Welcome to El Hilo, a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios. I’m Eliezer Budasoff.

[Silvia]: And I’m Silvia Viñas.

Today: Lack of resources, sexual violence, and the power of conservative factions fuel a crisis of child and adolescent pregnancy in Paraguay, pushing hundreds of abused girls each year into a dead-end where they are forced to give birth.

[Juliana Quintana]: Casa Rosa María is part of a network of girls’ homes run by churches in Paraguay. It specializes in hosting pregnant girls.

[Silvia]: She is Juliana Quintana, a journalist from the digital outlet El Surtidor. In late 2022, Juliana, along with Nathaniel Janowitz, a reporter for Vice News, investigated the case of Casa Rosa María, a central place to understand what happens with pregnant girls and adolescents in Paraguay.

[Juliana]: From the outside, it has an entrance that seems free, on days when Mass is held. There’s a gate. You go through the gate and see a lot of greenery because it’s diagonally across from a square. Once you enter, there’s a lobby, and immediately you come across the church, the parish, which is part of Casa Rosa María.

[Eliezer]: To understand how the shelter operates, Juliana and Nathaniel decided to visit the house during Mass.

[Juliana]: Once it ended, we saw how the girls with babies in their arms were coming out of the church, some pregnant, girls around nine and 12 years old.

[Silvia]: Juliana explained that these girls come to Casa Rosa María through different channels.

[Juliana]: Girls who file a complaint with their family—or not—are the ones who come to the house through the Prosecutor’s Office.

[Silvia]: That is, when there is a complaint of abuse or rape, they can come through a court order. And if there is no complaint, as in the cases we will learn about later, they come through the recommendation of acquaintances from the church or the shelter, through friendships, neighbors, or religious groups fighting against abortion.

[Juliana]: Many times, due to friendship or closeness with the directors of Casa Rosa María, they refer cases that they become aware of or accompany from the parish of San Pedro and San Pablo.

[Silvia]: Most of these girls come from poor families. Paraguay has a very high rate of child poverty: according to official data, almost 38% of children are poor. Many migrate from rural areas to the capital in search of better opportunities.

[Eliezer]: At Casa Rosa María, the girls go through pregnancy and the baby’s first months, receiving food, clothing, and professional medical care. Juliana told us that they are taught to change diapers and take care of babies. They also receive vocational training: hairdressing, manicures, pedicures, embroidery, cooking.

[Ávila]: And that is our main objective: to welcome them. Give them the opportunity to boost their self-esteem, which is very low. A lot of shame, a lot of fear. They come from very low social strata, with a lot of contamination in their bodies, parasites, infections.

Come a bit closer, come a bit closer.

[Young Woman]: I’m coming.

[Juliana]: Ávila was very open about the philosophy of the house.

[Ávila]: We belong, if you can say so, to a pro-life organization that is not held in high regard in the New World Order. The best, as they say, is to abort, to kill an innocent inside the maternal womb.

[Silvia]: Juliana and Nathaniel asked Ávila whether he agreed to continue with pregnancies even if the girls had been raped within their families.

[Ávila]: Why would you kill a child? Why not kill the stepfather? He is the one who caused the trouble; he is the one who has to die, not the child, the innocent child. Let it be the uncle or the rapist. Why would you kill someone who has nothing to do with it? They can’t defend themselves.

[Silvia]: According to a report by UNICEF and the Ministry of Childhood and Adolescence of Paraguay, 80% of the abuses in the country occur within the victim’s family environment:

[Juliana]: It could be the father, it could be the uncle, it could be the neighbor, it could be a cousin. It is common for there to be a kind of pact of silence within families, where violations happen within families, homes, and is unfortunately part of the reality in Paraguay.

Ávila defends life under any circumstance. This is public knowledge. There are multiple articles in the media where they openly talk about the work they do at Casa Rosa María. Public opinion praises this work.

[Eliezer]: A report from one of Paraguay’s main newspapers, for example, refers to Casa Rosa María as, and I quote, “a shelter where life makes sense,” a place where “love for others is emotional support,” and it refers to the residents as “women of limited resources opposing abortion.” Only in the second paragraph does it mention that many of them are minors.

Another newspaper says that the house is the work of “volunteers who love life” and presents the girls as mothers who “faced loneliness or rejection for getting pregnant,” although in the fourth paragraph, a priest acknowledges that the vast majority of the cases they receive are adolescents abused in their family environment. And he mentions, as an achievement, the case of a 10-year-old girl who arrived at Casa Rosa María after being raped and was able to give birth by cesarean section.

[Silvia]: But, let’s see, how terrible. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and she’s small, really small. And I know that with the body she has now, she would be at risk if she got pregnant. And you’re telling us that there are even younger girls than that. So, does Ávila not know about the risks of a girl getting pregnant and going through that pregnancy?

[Juliana]: I think that in this case, what prevails is his faith over the personal decisions of women and, above all, the rights of girls and adolescents.

[Eliezer]: The risks of child and adolescent pregnancy, both for the girl and for the baby, are extensively described in various studies. According to the World Health Organization, adolescent mothers, aged 10 to 19, are at higher risk of death, as well as seizures, coma, and uterine or systemic infections. Their babies are at a higher risk of low birth weight, premature birth, and serious health issues.

[Silvia]: The Paraguayan Ministry of Health’s website also provides information on this: it explains that pregnancies in girls and adolescents are considered risky or high-risk. It also states, I quote, that “the minor is not in a condition to face a pregnancy, either physically or mentally.” But for Óscar Ávila, all of this is things said in the press.

[Ávila]: Until now, contrary to everything the media says, that it is very dangerous for a girl to have or give birth and with a high rate of maternal mortality, we haven’t had a single one. We had complicated cases for obvious reasons that had to arise, but they turned out well.

[Eliezer]: The majority of the pregnant girls and adolescents they take to give birth have been abused. In 2022, the Paraguayan Prosecutor’s Office handled 3,800 cases of sexual abuse, in addition to 900 cases of statutory rape, defined as rapes of minors aged 14 to 17. Although reports have increased, there is a clear problem of underreporting because the victims often know their aggressor.

[Silvia]: And there is usually a prejudice with these cases: the belief that they only occur in the homes of poor families.

[Juliana]: This happens in all types of families. In middle-class families, in upper-class families, in humble families.

[Silvia]: When it’s not a form of sexual abuse, as is the case in most pregnancies of girls and adolescents, the lack of access to information and prevention methods comes into play.

[Juliana]: Or in the case of sexual relationships between peers, they haven’t had access to comprehensive sex education or access to sexual and reproductive health services.

[Eliezer]: Various reports and specialists suggest that, in Paraguay, sex education is limited to providing biological information about reproduction and disease transmission, with a theoretical and moralistic approach. Discussing child and adolescent pregnancy, sexual abuse, or abortion is often taboo in the classroom.

[Juliana]: If girls don’t have comprehensive sex education, if they can’t, after being abused, access legal abortion, if they can’t even access a real support system, what ends up happening is an epidemic of child pregnancies, and shelters like Casa Rosa María become one of the few options for girls and adolescents with forced pregnancies.

[Eliezer]: Paraguayan legislation punishes women who have an abortion with up to two years in prison for the woman and higher penalties for third parties involved. Pregnancy can only be terminated to prevent risks to the mother’s life. However, in practice, specialists agree that it is quite difficult to implement even in these cases.

[Juliana]: Girls and adolescents who become pregnant have few options beyond giving birth, whether they want to be mothers or not.

[Silvia]: After the break, the testimonies of two young women who lived in Casa Rosa María, and the reasons why Paraguay is considered a laboratory for anti-rights ideas.

[Eliezer]: We’ll be right back.

[Silvia]: We’re back on El Hilo. To understand the kind of life stories behind the girls who arrive pregnant at Casa Rosa María, Juliana and Nathaniel spoke with two young women, now adults, who went through that shelter.

[Juliana]: We decided to speak with two women who have already left Casa Rosa María, who are now mothers, are of legal age, and can make the informed decision to be interviewed.

[Eliezer]: One of them is Lucía, as we’ll call her: we decided to change her name to protect her identity. Lucía was born in a town in the interior of Paraguay. Today, she is 28 years old, with two children.

[Juliana]: She grew up moving from one house to another from a very young age.

[Lucía]: I was underage, and I practically had no family. I didn’t know my family, neither my dad, mom, nor siblings.

[Juliana]: From a young age, she left her home in a house in the interior of the country, moving to other cities closer to Asunción, where families took her in to work on household chores.

[Lucía]: The intention was for me to study, work, and get ahead in life.

[Silvia]: At that time, she was 12 years old.

[Lucía]: When you live in the house of someone who is not your family, very few people usually welcome you as a true family and treat you like family. Not everyone gets to experience that feeling of love and warmth from a family home, something I didn’t experience. On my birthdays, no one made me a cake, and their own children, who were their real children, always had a birthday. Those were the little details that made me feel alone; I didn’t feel like part of that family.

[Eliezer]: They provided shelter and food, but everything else she had to manage on her own.

[Lucía]: Well, the rest I had to handle myself. I went to school, and I had to get everything myself. I bought my school supplies, clothes, shoes, everything.

[Juliana]: After a while, the situation became more complicated. At the family level, they found it impossible to continue supporting her, so she had to go to another city, with another family, and start over in the same way, right?

[Lucía]: It felt like they were ripping me away from my home. It’s like they ripped a part of me away at that moment, because that’s how I felt.

[Eliezer]: Lucía’s story is similar to that of many girls who migrate from the interior of the country and arrive in the capital with the idea of studying and working in family homes. This is a deeply rooted custom in Paraguay, and these girls are often called “criaditas.”

[Julia Cabello]: They are little girls who are taken from their homes or given by their own families to be domestic workers, usually in homes located in urban centers, where they work in exchange for education, theoretically, and shelter, right?

[Silvia]: This is Julia Cabello, a lawyer and legal coordinator at Amnesty International Paraguay.

[Julia]: In many cases, it can even lead to a situation of servitude or slavery because there may not even be payment. In other cases, there may be payment, but there isn’t even a promise of education or payment in the form of education. Even today, it’s normalized as a kind of trafficking.

[Silvia]: It is estimated that in Paraguay, there are about fifty thousand girls—the majority being little girls—and adolescents in a situation of “criadazgo,” according to the latest official data from 2011. Criadazgo and child domestic labor are considered dangerous work associated with modern slavery. Although there is no specific legislation for “criadazgo,” Paraguayan authorities and justice have applied trafficking regulations for these cases. Despite this and numerous recommendations to eradicate it, criadazgo remains a deeply rooted practice in Paraguay, often accepted as a voluntary agreement between families and seen as beneficial for the girl.

Several reports cited by UNICEF describe the risks of this practice for girls: a lack of the promised education, injuries related to kitchen work (burns and cuts), lack of medical attention, mistreatment, sexual abuse, and unwanted pregnancies. It also emphasizes that these girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking for sexual exploitation.

[Julia]: There are cases of girls who died from beatings by their employers. Cases of sexual abuse, a lot of them.

[Eliezer]: It’s not easy to change the perspective on this custom because this situation of servitude is often presented as “an opportunity.”

[Julia]: Yes, it happens with a certain perversity, I would even say. As a situation of apparent affection, meaning the girl, in many cases, calls her employers godmother or godfather. In other cases, they are clearly called boss. However, in other cases, it is presented as this kind of bond, affection, but, in reality, these are abuses, severe abuses.

[Silvia]: For Rosalía Vega, executive director of Amnesty International in Paraguay, the problem goes beyond a class issue:

[Rosalía Vega]: It’s a profound problem. I believe it is not only related to a structural issue but also a cultural one. For example, in Paraguay, early unions between girls and adults are allowed, mainly in the interior of the country. Moreover, these are families that accept and approve of such unions.

[Eliezer]: Amnesty specialists told Nathaniel and Juliana about different cases they have dealt with.

[Julia]: We have dealt with cases where the mother of a girl, a 15-year-old girl, who is in a so-called union with someone aged 30 or 35, the mother of the girl says, “But why? If she wants to and we do,” and so on. Because generally, it is also intertwined with a situation of poverty. So these unions often occur due to a person, an older man who supports the girl’s family. So, in practice, it’s a kind of surrender, right? But culturally very, very tolerated.

[Eliezer]: Lucía’s story shows how the absence of the state and cultural issues together explain institutions like Casa Rosa María, where she lived twice. The first time, she was 14 years old and not pregnant, but an exception was made because the family where she lived could no longer support her. She stayed for nearly a year. The second time, she was 17 and pregnant.

[Juliana]: She ended up getting pregnant from a relationship she had. She describes it as consensual.

[Lucía]: I was about to finish high school; that’s when I got pregnant. Super naive, my goodness! When you are young and in love… wow! I won’t even tell you. And the father of my child was already older at that time. Surely, I thought he would take care of me because one is supposed to feel safer with an older person than with someone younger or your age, you know? That’s what I thought, but it was the opposite. He didn’t take care of me; I got pregnant. I didn’t know. I found out after four months. Well, I said, “No, no, no;” I didn’t want to know anything. Nothing, I didn’t want to know.

[Juliana]: And one of the families she was working for recommended her to go to Casa Rosa María.

[Silvia]: She was reaching her fifth month of pregnancy.

[Lucía]: So I said, “Surely God sent me for something, and for some reason, and I have to accept it somehow.”

[Eliezer]: Lucía told Juliana about the dialogue she had with her employer at that time:

[Lucía]: “Your baby is already fine. Don’t even think about anything or take anything now because your child is already fine.” And there I already knew the sex and everything, because I was almost 5 months by then, and I already knew it was going to be a boy. And I didn’t want to know anything. Nothing, I didn’t want to know.

[Silvia]: And if she didn’t want the child, Lucia said her employer offered her an alternative:

[Lucía]: “You will be super taken care of, and your child too. And in any case, if you don’t accept your child in that place, I will take care of your child.”

[Silvia]: Lucía returned to Casa Rosa María.

[Lucía]: Well, when I arrived at the home, they received me very well.

[Juliana]: She arrives at Casa Rosa María. As on several occasions when a girl arrives at the house, they have a room for her, a little bed, a nightstand, a window. They are very small rooms, at least the ones I could see.

[Eliezer]: Life in the house was strict, Lucía told Juliana, with restricted outings.

[Lucía]: You are locked in there 24 hours a day because you don’t go anywhere. The only place we went was to Sunday Mass and nothing else. We didn’t go anywhere else, except to the supermarket or the hospital.

[Silvia]: She also mentioned that they were forbidden from using cell phones.

[Lucía]: According to them, it’s to prevent the girls from talking to boys.

[Eliezer]: Juliana found a common element in the interviews she conducted: the central role of the director of Casa Rosa María in convincing the girls and adolescents to continue with the pregnancy.

[Juliana]: She says that she had a conversation that seemed like the fundamental one, that made her absolutely convinced that she wanted to carry the pregnancy to term.

[Lucía]: He grabbed my hand and we started talking, right? And he told me, “Take out everything you’re holding, because you have something stuck there that you are not getting out. That is what makes you distance yourself from your baby, because that is your being, it is your blood, it is your flesh, it practically has to be your life, because it is going to come out of your womb,” he tells me. And then he starts talking to me like a father; he was always like a dad, a grandfather, to everyone there.

[Juliana]: Everyone describes that moment of uncertainty of saying, “I didn’t have this planned; I wasn’t sure what I wanted.” And yet they end up like… like coming to the conclusion that that’s what they have left.

[Silvia]: The same thing happened to Gabriela, another woman who visited Casa Rosa María when she was a teenager. We have also changed her name to protect her privacy. Today Gabriela is 27 years old. At that time, she was 17, and she sold chipá guazú, a typical Paraguayan pastry, in a parish.

[Juliana]: She has a terrible life situation. Her then partner suggests that she contact this group and puts them in touch.

[Silvia]: Gabriela had tried to abort with pills that she had obtained on the illegal market. But her pregnancy was already very advanced.

[Gabriela]: And there I came across the reality of many other girls. For example, there were girls 12 or 13 years old who were already pregnant due to violations investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office. The Prosecutor’s Office brings the girls, 12 or 13 years old or so; they were pregnant and they were there, right?

[Eliezer]: In Gabriela’s story, the influence that Ávila had on her decision also appears:

[Gabriela]: I also started seeing Mr. Ávila. He forced me, he told me, “Touch your belly, tell your baby that you love him.” He did it like this because I didn’t want to know anything about the baby at that time, right? I also saw there at the home how the girls loved their babies. They took care of them, they pampered them, and I said… because my fear was how could I be a mother if I was 17 years old. I do not know anything. And since I saw that they could, I said, “I’m going to be able, too. If they can, why can’t I?”

[Silvia]: Juliana says that Gabriela’s case is different from Lucía’s, whose story could be taken as an emblematic example of what they are looking for in Casa Rosa María.

[Juliana]: She stays in contact with the home administrators; she is super grateful and gives the impression that she feels indebted to them in some way. In Gabriela’s case, however, a much clearer, much more evident distance is evident. Gabriela says that she would have liked to have information available to her, because at that time, she gives this example, she didn’t even know what a condom was, right?

[Gabriela]: I don’t judge anyone, right? I mean, it’s up to each one to decide. But yes, I also disagree. That’s why now that I’m like this, I decided to distance myself a little from the Church, because I don’t like many things either. I, for example, agree that girls, that is, young women, should be taught from an early age how to take care of themselves, because I, for example, did not receive that, I did not even know what that was.

[Juliana]: Is that the condom?

[Gabriela]: Yes, do you understand? It is difficult to go through a teenage pregnancy. It’s hard to be a teenage mom. Very difficult. And if one is able to prevent it, it’s better to do so.

[Silvia]: Alright. Well, let’s now talk more broadly outside of this house. What else do politicians or anti-rights politicians or groups do in Paraguay? How influential are they?

[Juliana]: Anti-rights groups are deeply influential in Paraguayan politics, especially in conservative parties. We have a Colorado government, which is the same party that has been in power since the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, with a very brief interruption, and that party also proclaims itself as pro-life. Pro-life, pro-family, defender of the homeland.

[Eliezer]: To understand how this perspective translates into public policies that affect everyone, Juliana and Nathaniel also interviewed Mirta Moragas, a human rights lawyer and feminist who studies these conservative movements and their influence in Paraguay.

[Mirta Moragas]: One of the priorities of anti-rights groups is the fight against gender in education, against comprehensive sex education, and especially in the field of education, because that’s ultimately where the cultural battle is.

[Silvia]: She refers to the Catholic Church, evangelical groups that have grown in recent years, and also private schools, parent associations…

[Mirta]: Since there is a match of agendas, let’s say, between the traditional parties that already have political space and the evangelical Church, evangelical leaders end up in traditional parties.

[Eliezer]: For example, the former evangelical pastor Arnoldo Wiens, who was a senator for the Colorado party and became Minister of Public Works in the first four years of Mario Abdo Benítez’s government. Or Eduardo Petta, an evangelical leader who was appointed as Minister of Education at the beginning of the administration. During his time in the ministry, Petta banned the circulation of a guide for comprehensive sex education for teachers, and encouraged evangelical pastors to give seminars to teachers and students.

According to Mirta Moragas, Paraguay is a fertile ground for experiments by anti-rights groups. She gave several examples, such as the ban on gender education in 2017, which we discussed at the beginning, or the creation of a registry of the unborn to strengthen the legal framework against abortion.

[Mirta]: What has been happening in recent years is like a kind of laboratory for anti-rights or even antidemocratic issues, appealing to that invisibility. In other words, that invisibility makes it easy to test things that are done in other countries.

[Silvia]: While in Paraguay there are groups of students, LGBT activists, feminists, and families calling for comprehensive sex education and abuse prevention courses, it is clear that they are a minority.

In April of this year, the Colorado party won the elections again. Santiago Peña, who will be sworn in as president in August, has stated that he is against “the globalist agenda” and “against same-sex marriage and abortion.”

In May, the municipality of the city of Asunción, where Casa Rosa María is located, declared itself pro-life. But this was not the first such announcement: at least 10 Paraguayan cities have already been declared pro-life.

[Nausícaa Palomeque]: This episode was produced by me, with reporting by Juliana Quintana and Nathaniel Janowitz. It was edited by Silvia and Eliezer. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The mixing, sound design, and music are by Elías González.

Thanks to lawyer Mirta Moragas, psychologist Marta Benítez, director of Global Infancia, and Amnesty Paraguay for their help during the production of this episode.

The rest of the El Hilo team includes Daniela Cruzat, Mariana Zúñiga, Analía Llorente, Samantha Proaño, Paola Alean, Laura Rojas Aponte, Juan David Naranjo Navarro, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Camilo Jiménez Santofimio. Daniel Alarcón is our editorial director. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios. Our music theme was composed by Pauchi Sasaki.

El Hilo is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios. If you value independent and rigorous journalism about Latin America, we invite you to join our memberships. By donating, you will be contributing directly to keeping El Hilo reporting on our region. Visit:

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I am Nausícaa Palomeque.

Thank you for listening.




Nausícaa Palomeque

Juliana Quintana and Nathaniel Janowitz

Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff

Bruno Scelza

Elías González 

Vice News / Nathaniel Janowitz