Study focuses on youth pregnancy in Galapagos

Researchers from social work and nursing schools are working with islanders to promote health and prevent violence.

Two individuals looking at paperwork at a conference table.
(School of Social Work)

A team of interdisciplinary researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill is collaborating across schools to put the people first in a land better known for its fantastical animals.

Youth pregnancy and violence are issues the people of the Galapagos Islands have identified as concerns, the researchers said. Ecuador, home of the Galapagos Islands, has one of the highest rates of youth pregnancy in the Americas — nearly 26 percentage points higher than the global average of 43.8%.

The researchers’ work in the Galapagos focuses on gaining a better understanding of how youth there can enhance their health and promote healthier lifestyles. Their study is made possible by a 2020 seed grant from the School of Social Work and support from the UNC Center for Galapagos Studies.

The research team includes Natalia Villegas Rodriguez, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, and associate professors Cynthia Fraga Rizo and Rainier Masa from the School of Social Work.

By working directly with the community, the team hopes to develop training programs to enhance the skills already possessed by the island’s youth. Those programs’ educational interventions may prevent future youth pregnancies and violence.

The UNC-Chapel Hill team partnered with local research assistants to take a community-engaged approach to the study, making it a true collaboration between the community and the study’s investigators.

“It’s not just collecting this information and publishing it,” Villegas Rodriguez said. “Our final objective is that we collect this information and, together — we and the community — design interventions and trainings that can empower youth and prevent these issues.”

Findings and outcomes

During their two weeks in the Galapagos in August, the research team interviewed 20 youth from the island. While the researchers are still analyzing the data, preliminary findings showed that island youth are experiencing high rates of pregnancy and domestic violence.

Although some have not experienced domestic violence in their relationships, they did share family histories of intimate partner violence. Some study participants said they felt like they needed more resources to ask for help and are not confident asking for treatment. Many also face mental health issues from a lack of support, which can lead to depression.

Researchers said they hope to explore more of what the youth mentioned in their interviews. Of special concern was the role substance abuse plays in negative health outcomes and domestic violence.

“Findings can be helpful in different ways,” Villegas Rodriguez said. Even though the Galapagos Islands are far from the U.S., “the Latino cultural values are similar, and our preliminary findings indicate that youth confront similar issues to the issues that Latino youth face in the U.S. Findings and lessons learned here and in the Galapagos can provide valuable information to enhance prevention efforts in these areas in both regions.”

Future studies

With this interdisciplinary trip complete, the UNC-Chapel Hill team hopes to return to the island to follow up and lead future research in continued partnership with the community.

Masa, the research director of the Global Social Development Innovations research center, believes there are increasing opportunities for UNC to partner with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito — the sole university campus on the island.

“There is interest in expanding the work being done here, particularly focusing on people living on the island,” Masa said. “I think that’s where the collaboration between the School of Social Work and the School of Nursing started. There was an opportunity to work together to address the needs and issues affecting people living in the Galapagos.”

Read more about the Galapagos youth research project.