That does not explain why the mainland too suffers from the same ills. Every few months, the Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar Foundation in Cartagena receives a new batch of 400 pregnant girls, most of whom know little about contraception–and many who have been sexually abused. The foundation offers classes and healthcare, along with job training, in order to help pregnant women and new mothers break the cycle of poverty.
And yet, the rate is rising: 19 percent of Cartagena’s pregnancies were adolescents in 2010; by 2013 it was 21.1 percent.
“These girls are at the base of the pyramid,” the foundation’s director Fanina Angel tells me. “Most of them are repeating the pattern of their mothers, who had them at 14 or 15 years old. They haven’t studied, they don’t have any opportunities, and this just increments their poverty.”
“And this seafood myth?” she says. “Everyone on the coast says seafood works as an aphrodisiac. It’s a total myth of sexuality.”
But that kind of cultural belief needs to be approached delicately, warns Matt Kohn, who has worked with the United Nations developing global sex education and family planning materials.
“It’s very easy for people from the Western world with basic education to say they know what’s right and what’s wrong with another culture, but it’s important to be respectful of cultural differences,” says Kohn, a Canadian native currently in Cartagena.
He compares the seafood theory to a belief in the Ivory Coast that bushmeat causes fertility and that the best bushmeat hunters have the most children–but he says such old notions cannot be used to justify sexual carelessness. He notes that the UN has made educational materials that lay out safe sex options while never refuting local beliefs, as a way to bridge the gap between different belief systems.