CARACAS (Reuters) - A display showing mannequins of pregnant schoolgirls at a Caracas mall is shocking shoppers and stirring debate over sex education in Venezuela.
Two local charities have dressed up three mannequins behind a shop window as girls with bulging stomachs under the blue uniforms used by school children here until age 15.
The idea is to draw attention to an adolescent pregnancy rate they say is one of the worst in South America with one girl under-18 becoming pregnant every three minutes and 23 percent of all births coming in that age category.
"I think it's horrible, awful. If I was a mother, I wouldn't want my child to see that," said scandalized student Kelly Hernandez, 18, clasping her hand over her mouth as she took a double-take at the display on Wednesday.
Her friend Auriselvia Torrealba, 20, was more sympathetic, seeing a higher purpose to the shock campaign.
"Yes, it's disturbing to see in a window. But it's the truth. You see pregnant girls all the time on the streets. So this forces you to think about the problem, doesn't it?"
While Venezuela's socialist government says education and children's rights have improved enormously during its 15 years in power, non-governmental agencies say sex education needs to be improved and parents need to take the subject more seriously.
The two children's charities behind the campaign, Fundana and Construyendo Futuros, are delighted with the controversy and publicity around their display.
"It's amazing seeing people react as they walk by. This is such a taboo subject in Venezuela, we want people to talk about it," Construyendo Futuros president Thalma Cohen said. "Some people get angry and complain. Others congratulate us."
The display runs for a month and may be extended to other malls around the nation of 30 million people.
It comes days after a United Nations women's rights watchdog expressed "deep concern" to Venezuela about the high number of teenage pregnancies and associated maternal mortality.
According to the most recent U.N. data, Venezuela had an adolescent birth rate of 101 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, one of the highest in Latin America, in 2010.
Maternal mortality was 92 per 100,000 live births, which is around mid-range for the region.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Hay