Tue, Nov 09, 2010 - Page 16 News List

Kids these days

A 10-year-old Roma girl giving birth to a baby in Spain has caused outrage. But she and her family seem happy, so why should we be worried?

By Giles Tremlett  /  THE GUARDIAN, LONDON

Roma women chat at a camp in a suburb of Bucharest, Romania.

Photo: Bloomberg

She is called Nicoletta and, undoubtedly, is as delightful as any healthy newborn baby. But her birth two weeks ago in the southern Spanish city of Jerez has provoked a storm — because her mother is just 10 years old.

What has shocked the rest of the world, however, is described as a happy event by the family.

“My daughter is well, as is the little girl — who is very fine and pretty. She is very happy with her daughter,” the baby’s Romanian grandmother, Olimpia, told Spanish journalists. “This is not a drama, it is a cause for happiness. At this age we marry in Romania. It is normal amongst we Gypsies.”

Can that really be true? Recorded examples suggest that mothers this young tend to be victims of abuse or rape. And what does Nicoletta’s birth say about everything from the increasingly early development of young girls’ bodies and the cultural norms of Romania’s Roma community to the laws in Spain, where the child gave birth?

Doctors at the hospital in Jerez confirmed that the family had been pleased at the birth. Both the child’s mother and the grandmother took it in their stride, and there had been no need for a cesarean. The hospital apparently knew nothing about the pregnancy until the mother turned up on Oct. 26.

The father is said to be another minor, an unnamed Romanian boy aged 13. The relationship is now described as “over” by Olimpia. Under Spanish law, the age for consensual sex with an adult is 13 — one of the world’s lowest. And, in a measure apparently maintained for Spain’s own Gypsy community, the law allows a 14-year-old to marry if a judge decides there are exceptional circumstances.

The UN has called on Spain to raise that age. But the law has little to say about consensual sex among minors (those under the age of 18), nor the responsibility or otherwise of the parents. A magistrate in the provincial capital of Seville this week opened an investigation — but apparently only to find out why the mother had not been going to school and had not visited a doctor before the birth.

Little is known of the details of the young mother’s journey from pregnancy to childbirth. Some reports say that she arrived in Spain only three weeks ago, apparently to attend a wedding.

“The mother of the young girl says they came for a wedding and that she had got pregnant in Romania,” explains a town hall spokeswoman in Lebrija, where the family is living.

Attempts to paint the family as welfare scroungers have failed. “We have money, a home, electricity and water, so we do not need anything from the Spanish government,” Olimpia says.

The child’s mother herself stepped out of their small apartment on Wednesday last week to take her baby to the local heath clinic. The girl wore a loose pink top and a flowing red dress, and her family placed a cloth over her head to protect her from photographers. “She is scared they will take her baby away,” says Maria, a fellow Romanian who lives in the same apartment block. “The family is worried about what might happen, so they have stopped opening the door to people.”

The baby’s grandmother has been living in Lebrija for a while. Authorities seemed so stunned by the birth that they did not know what to do. The hospital released mother and child after four days. Only later did the local social services say they were investigating to see whether the baby would be properly looked after. Mayor Maria Jose Fernandez said the family had never visited the local health center before, but confirmed that the baby was doing fine.

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