Long-time advocate for the health of young girls and women Catalina Escobar was recently recognized as a CNN Hero. Escobar works as a "community crusader" in Cartagena, one of Colombia's largest cities where one-third of residents live at or below the poverty line, and, to complicate matters even further, where one in five girls aged 15 to 19 are or have been pregnant.
"Girls tell me they don't understand how they got pregnant. They think it's from a kiss," Escobar said. "They don't know that the option of using condoms exists."
For more than a decade, this Ashoka Fellow and founder of the Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar Foundation—named after her 16-month-old son who passed away in a tragic accident—has been giving thousands of teen moms the tools to change their lives, empowering them with health care services, early childhood and reproductive health education and job training.
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It started with just 30 girls in 2002, but it has expanded in the last decade. With the opening of her foundation's new center last year, 400 pregnant teens and young mothers now enroll every year.
While the program aims to prevent future pregnancies, Escobar also wants to give these young mothers the tools they need to change their lives. The girls can finish high school on site, take computer classes or learn vocational skills like sewing or jewelry-making. The teens also make and sell products at the center's bakery, which helps fund the program, and the foundation offers micro-loans to help them start their own businesses.
The program also helps mothers find jobs or provides them scholarships to help them continue their education at a trade school or university. The teens return to the center every week so Escobar's staff can track their progress and assist with any problems. Within two to four years, Escobar wants her girls to be providing for their families and be on their way to a better life. She says that two-thirds of those who've completed the program have gone on to find jobs.