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From rural Colombia, a wakeup call

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Esther Cepeda
April 9, 2012
— What can a 10-year-old Colombian girl teach Americans about the power of a 21st-century education?

That it must be meaningful, engaging and clearly illuminate the path to a prosperous future.


The little girl in question is being called one of the youngest mothers in history. A resident of Manaure—a small town about a 20-hour ride north of Bogota—she had not seen a doctor once during her pregnancy and arrived at a local hospital last week bleeding and moments from delivering a five-and-a-half-pound baby.


As part of the indigenous Wayuu people, the girl is presumably shielded from whatever environmental and cultural factors are causing girls as young as 7 to start showing signs of puberty in the United States. Yet in the Wayuu culture, it is normal for girls to be promised to men in their clan as young as 10, with the expectation that they will someday fulfill traditional duties of being a wife and rearing children.


In other words, young Wayuu girls don’t have formal professions or alternative life paths in mind as they grow up.


Though one indigenous group of people in a small corner of South America is an imperfect and extreme example, this young mother’s story reminded me of a recent report from the Inter-American Development Bank showing that teen girls in Peru and Paraguay don’t quit school because they get pregnant. Rather, they intentionally get pregnant because it gives them a good reason to leave school.


These mothers, according to “Educational Failure: Pregnancies to Skip School,” were typically already doing poorly in school because they shared the perception that completing their education would not improve their chances of having a good life. In fact, the girls in the study reported actively choosing not to use contraceptives because starting a family would give their lives meaning compared to their frustrating or boring school experience.


Now consider that, according to “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” a 2006 report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the No. 1 reason young Americans cited for dropping out was “classes were not interesting.” The report said students felt a lack of connection to the school environment and a perception that school is boring. Forty-two percent of respondents said that they “spent time with people who were not interested in school.”


That jibes with my own experiences teaching low-income high school students. Young people grinding away in substandard schools, whether here or thousands of miles away, often wonder whether starting a family would be a good alternative to finishing high school.


The young Colombian mom can serve as a wakeup call. As a country, we’re alarmed enough about students not having access to great educational resources or role models to try to reform our way out of it. But though most people know that education is the ticket to a meaningful and rewarding life, many parents and adults are not adequately selling that value proposition.


It’s time to start doing a way better job of really making our at-risk and increasingly fertile-at-younger-ages children understand what kind of lives they could have if they just stay in school.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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