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Helping Mexican youth to cope

By Kristin HelmoreStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 1986

Mexico City

In a haze of brown, metallic-tasting smog, Mexico City stretches endlessly, in all directions. It covers more ground with its cinderblock buildings, makeshift shacks, and grid patterns of slum dwellings than any other city in the world. And its population of 18 million is expected to double by the end of the century. The Mexican government's family planning program of the last decade is viewed as one of the third world's success stories. But observers are still alarmed by Mexico's runaway urbanization, and by the inadequacies of services such as schools to cope with the spiraling numbers of young people. The inner-city youth of Mexico, these observers say, have too few opportunities for education and employment and frequently wind up having children they are ill equipped to care for.

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Since 1978, Anamel'i Monroy has been tackling the problems of Mexico City's youth, for whom unemployment rates run as high as 59 percent. She is particularly concerned with helping to stem the tide of population growth.

Warm and eminently feminine, Dr. Monroy looks more like the kind of upper-middle-class socialite you might expect to find sleeping late in the mornings and playing tennis or planning dinner parties in the afternoon.

But this mother of three university students, who has her doctorate in psychology, spends her mornings -- from 7:30 on -- at CORA, the Centro de Orientaci'on para Adolescentes (Center for Adolescent Orientation). She founded CORA eight years ago to provide inner-city youth with social and cultural activities, as well as counseling on sex education and contraception. She spends her afternoons at the offices of Mexico's national family planning program, where she is an assistant program director.

A thousand young people per week attend the guitar classes, handicraft workshops, sports activities, movie club, English classes, or theater groups of CORA, which probably reaches 100,000 adolescents a year. Most of them are from poor areas, where young people often don't know how to spend their free time, and where drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and vagrancy are common problems.

Although the vast majority of Mexicans are Roman Catholics, and the church does not sanction birth control, Monroy says the programs of CORA, like those of most other Mexican family planning agencies, have encountered virtually no resistance from the religious establishment.

In a recent interview, Monroy talked about the problems and pressures her young clients often face, and about some methods CORA has come up with to handle them. One of the major problems in the slums is that of pregnant girls, or girls with babies, abandoned by the fathers of their children. Why does this seem to be so prevalent?

I think the problem has to do with role models. The traditional Mexican idea is that to be a man means to have many pregnant women around, and lots of children. We are teaching that this is wrong.

One thing we are trying to do in our sex education talks is to let the boys and girls know that the sex roles shouldn't be so different. They should have equal rights, equal opportunities, equal responsibilities. I have seen attitudes change. Now they [some of the young people] criticize the traditional roles.

But it's not the boys alone who are to blame. A girl who says, ``He made me get pregnant,'' is not facing her responsibilities, either. We want the girls to know that if they become pregnant it's because they wanted to. They can say no or they can do something to avoid that pregnancy. Does CORA try to discourage any sexual activity at all?