How Romania's teenage pregnancies lead to 'broken destinies'
Bucharest, Romania: In a dilapidated studio apartment in a run-down part of Bucharest, a single mother of three Emilia remembers the despondency she felt when she first fell pregnant at the age of 15.
"I knew my future was over," she says.
Now 20, Emilia is one of the thousands of young Romanian women and girls for whom poverty and lack of access to health education have resulted in teenage pregnancies.
Around 10 percent of all newborns in Romania, a country of 19 million, are delivered to adolescent mothers, figures from the Romanian statistics institute show.
A total of 673 girls under 15 and 15,915 aged between 15 and 19 gave birth in 2020, many of them not for the first time, it said.
Indeed, the mother of the first baby registered in 2021 was herself just 15.
"A child having a child is a tragedy, a broken destiny," Gabriela Alexandrescu, head of Save the Children Romania, said during a recent debate with doctors and NGOs.
At the same event, Adriana Dan, a doctor at Bucharest's Emergency University Hospital, recounted the story of "two girls who came to the hospital with belly aches, not knowing they were about to give birth".
The phenomenon of teenage pregnancy is also widespread in neighboring Bulgaria, a fact partially explained by the tradition in the large Roma minorities in both countries for girls to marry early.
Teenage pregnancy is repeated "within the same families from one generation to another together with economic, social and health precariousness", according to a study published in January by UNICEF and Romania's SAMAS association, which focuses on health education for new parents.
In Bulgaria, several pregnancies among girls as young as 11 have been recorded in the past decade.
"At that age, a child is not physically and physiologically fit to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth," Daniela Draghici, vice-president of the Romanian NGO Sexul vs Barza (Sex vs the Stork), told AFP.
"In addition, she often finds herself all alone, her partner having disappeared."
Sex education controversy
"My mother advised against having a relationship at such a young age, but in the end, she said it's my choice," recalled Emilia, who asked that her full name not be published.
"She also never pushed me to have an abortion, as I was her eleventh child and she never had one," said the young woman, who abandoned her schooling at the age of 12.
"We lived in a makeshift shelter, with no electricity or running water, and I couldn't do my homework."
According to NGOs, sex education programs in schools and in disadvantaged communities are key to preventing such patterns from recurring in future generations.
But Romanian governments have been slow to act.
A bill to strengthen sex education is blocked in parliament due, in part, to opposition from an influential "Parents' Alliance", which is close to the country's powerful Orthodox Church.
The Alliance says that such courses would be a "masked strategy of forced sexualization of children from an early age".
Draghici, the activist, said that the lack of other sources means the internet has become the main source of information for young people on such issues.
She points to the roughly 30 family planning centers spread around Romania which have been closed in recent years as a sign of the gap in provision.
Out of 100 or so centers that are still open, barely any distribute free contraceptives due to a lack of funding, Draghici's NGO found on calling each of them.
Ioana Constantin, a Roma health worker, has been going door-to-door for 20 years in one of Bucharest's roughest neighborhoods.
She looks after around 700 families, mostly young couples.
She puts them in contact with doctors and helps register their children, a complicated process if parents do not have identity documents or are themselves minors.
"I tell them that it is easier to prevent a pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease" than to manage the consequences, she explained, lamenting the fact that the authorities are so little involved in the issue.
"It seems like it's a taboo subject, even in the century we live in."
Back in her small apartment, Emilia has more or less given up on her dream of being a teacher and is focusing all her efforts on making sure her three children will get a proper education.
"I want for them the future I wanted but never had."