The Huge Silence in Reproductive Health for Adolescent Girls
The leading cause of death for young women between ages 15 and 19 worldwide is pregnancy, with 85 percent of these pregnancies being unplanned. This statistic is outrageous, and the situation does not need to remain this way.
All over the world, girls and young women are engaging in sexual activity. Unfortunately a large portion of this activity is coming from sexual violence against girls in the form of sex trafficking, rape, domestic violence, and child marriages. When sex is a girl or young woman’s choice, it is usually largely uninformed or laden with myths.
The fact is that girls think about sex. They are curious. They have desires. They have intimate relationships. Whether we are talking about a teen girl in South Africa, in Cambodia, or in the United States, her sexuality is a part of her life. But in so many countries around the world we refuse to provide these girls with the proper education and tools for their personal safety. What a mistake.
In the United States this course of non-action has led to the highest rate of teenage pregnancies, teen births, teen abortions, and the highest incidence of teen STDs in the industrialized world. The huge silence in reproductive health for adolescent girls both in the U.S. and worldwide can be deadly. For both physiological and social reasons, girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their twenties, and girls under 15 are five times as likely.
Unfortunately in the U.S. we seem to have a big camp fighting against sexual education in the schools and instead for teen abstinence. The funny thing about this is that research shows that abstinence-only programs can actually cause more unsafe sex among teens, which ultimately leads to more teen pregnancies and more cases of HIV/AIDS. On the other hand, research shows that comprehensive sex education in schools is an effective strategy to help kids defer sexual activity.
Take for example the situation in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Teens in these countries are having sex at about the same rates as U.S. teens, but their pregnancy, abortion, and STD rates are much lower. Why the difference?
Teens in these countries are given comprehensive sex education in their schools, have greater access to contraception through their health services, and are given greater respect to act responsibly given the tools to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
While girls and boys in the U.S. today are exposed to Viagra ads, Victoria Secret catalogues, sexually explicit music videos, sexually-explicit “reality” shows, and so much media that says SEX, SEX, SEX, they are not given the education or support around the emotional and physical consequences of sexual activity.
We have to face it that media representations of sex shape kids’ understanding of the issue. And the fact is that kids are being exposed to sexual messages at increasingly earlier ages. The problem is that most of these representations are about quickie hook ups and the girl/woman as the object of the boy’s/man’s pleasure. Rarely do they deal with the emotional components of sexual activity, and rarely do they address the physical safety components.
So how can we best enable girls and young women to develop a healthy and responsible understanding of sexuality?
It’s simple. Give both girls and boys access to proper sex education, access to the means to protect themselves, and the respect and trust that they will take responsibility to avoid unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. When it comes down to it, this is a human rights issue. It’s about time we took action to put adolescent girls higher up on the human rights agenda.
To get information and resources to support you in talking with your daughter about sex and/or to get a comprehensive sex education program in her school, visit Advocates for Youth.
To provide reproductive health education to women and girls worldwide - empowering them to make the choices that are right for them - support the United Nations Population Fund.
Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed., is a writer, writing coach and consultant dedicated to the empowerment of women and girls. For more information, visit www.tabbybiddle.com.
Credit Image: © James Berglie/ZUMAPRESS.com/