Documenting the harsh realities of teen pregnancy in Venezuela

Documenting the harsh realities of teen pregnancy in Venezuela

Intimate portraits by Ana Maria Arévalo Gosen foreground the experiences of young mothers in a country with one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world.

In December 2006, then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez announced that he would not be renewing the broadcasting license for RCTV – the “most important independent television station in Venezuela,” according to the Council of Foreign Relations – accusing the channel of being involved in the 2002 coup d'état that briefly overthrew his government. The measure went into effect in May 2007 and the station’s equipment was turned over to the state-funded TVes channel. Meanwhile, thousands took to the streets to either protest against or show support for Chávez’s actions. The former crowd largely consisted of university students, with documentary photographer Ana María Arévalo Gosen amongst them.

The clashes, Arévalo Gosen says, shaped her political mindset and continue to inform the type of work she makes today, which sees her adopting a socially-conscious approach with a desire to share others’ stories. Initially this began with interviewing friends about what was happening on the streets in 2007 and uploading the footage to YouTube, away from mainstream media censorship. “I was reporting without knowing that I was reporting,” she says, alluding to the amateur sensibility with which she established her channel. “It was my way of doing something.” Two years later, she moved to Toulouse to study political sciences, leaving Venezuela “scared and angry.” “I was very divorced from my culture,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to look at it.”

Living near the photography gallery Château d'Eau – but more directly influenced by the documentary work she observed around her – Arévalo Gosen began turning to photography to record the world around her. She later moved to Hamburg, where she established her practice as a visual storyteller, before eventually settling in Spain. It was a homecoming in 2017 however, that really cemented her professional intentions and instigated two projects that fixed her focus on women’s rights: Días eternos (Eternal Days) and Abuelas con 30 años (Grandmothers at 30). “Everything was worse,” she recalls of that initial visit home. “There was no infrastructure, there were electricity shortages, my friends and neighbours were thinner because they didn't have things to eat. It really shocked me, so I decided to do work that tackled the question, what the hell happened? How did we get here?”

On the advice of a journalist friend already working with NGOs, Arévalo Gosen met with women in pre-trial detention centres in Venezuela, and later El Salvador and Guatemala, many of whom were held on charges related to robbery. Most are awaiting trial and presumed innocent, but the prolonged judicial process means stays can go on for months – sometimes years – keeping women separated from their families in dire conditions. From severe overcrowding to lack of medical assistance and irregular running water, the centres put already vulnerable women in even more precarious positions.

“I understood, through the conversations I had with the women, that I could relate [to them]. It became personal, it hurt me more, therefore I became this person that wants to advocate for women's rights,” Arévalo Gosen says of her time spent in the cells, talking with detainees. The experience led to the development of Días eternos, for which she photographed women on their bunks, in the yard and playing games. “The more time I spend with women, the more passionate I get about us and our challenges today,” she says. “When I left that place, I felt ashamed. I didn't know about the reality of these women.”

Started in 2019, Abuelas con 30 años continues this work by documenting the harsh realities of teenage pregnancy in Venezuela. The project, which earned Arévalo Gosen the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award 2023, foregrounds young families at home and in their local community. “One girl was eight months pregnant. She had this big belly, almost about to give birth – she told me she was hungry and so she stole,” Arévalo Gosen recalls of the women who first inspired the project. “The younger girls, who were also mothers, told me that they also stole because they were hungry. That's when I started to look at the data.”

The economic collapse of 2015 saw over seven million people leave Venezuela – many of whom were parents migrating to secure better financial opportunities for their children. Nearly all the girls featured in Abuelas con 30 años were privy to a version of this narrative. “They missed their parents, and some part of them thought having a kid was going to replace this love,” Arévalo Gosen says of the pattern she witnessed, with economic incentives from the government and firm abortion laws only exacerbating the issue. “If you ask around in Venezuela, you’re going to find teenage girls who are moms, it's culturally very normalised,” continues Arévalo Gosen, whose own grandmother was 15 when she became pregnant with her father.

A similarly common issue – certainly not exclusive to Venezuela – is the limited responsibility acknowledged by the boys who become dads. Like many of the NGOs she worked alongside, Arévalo Gosen was committed to including them in her work. “The conversation usually goes ‘yeah I'm a dad, but I don't feel the responsibility of taking care of the baby or the girl,” she notes. “[The boys’] dads aren’t responsible for them either, so it's a cycle that repeats itself over and over again.”

As well as shining a light on issues close to her heart, Arévalo Gosen’s work is geared towards social change. While the Marilyn Stafford win feels significant, the photographer is most excited about how it will help her build upon the work of those she met during both projects. “Currently, the government couldn’t care less about this problem,” she says. “They talk about it, but they’re not teaching anybody about sexual education. They’re barely teaching right now in public schools.”

So, with the aim of raising awareness around teenage pregnancy and fostering safer environments for sex and reproductive education, Arévalo Gosen’s photographs will be shown in communities and schools across the country alongside a documentary about the families in Abuelas con 30 años. “We don’t have a lot of ways to publish these stories in Venezuela,” Arévalo Gosen says, “but I’m going to try to exhibit them so we can open the conversation as much as we can.”

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