Thankfully, teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. have fallen in recent years — at least 42% since 1990. Not a bad start, but unfortunately, we still rank the highest among developed nations when it comes to young women under the age of 20 giving birth. This means that there are still millions of teen mothers struggling to balance motherhood, school and jobs, not to mention the infinite stresses that run rampant in any young adult’s life. Even those of us who aren’t adolescent parents ourselves feel the impact that teen pregnancy has on the national economy, which makes it clear that continuing to combat this — declining, yes, but still persistent — trend is in everyone’s best interest.
How shall we go about it?
Abstinence? Perhaps a good idea, but maybe a little too idealistic for the real world. By the time May rolls around each school year and the weather starts heating up, it only takes a quick glance into the hallway to realize that abstinence is not really the first thing on my students’ minds. And they’re only in middle school.
Contraception? Now we may be on to something, but it’s definitely controversial, and it still doesn’t really address the many different factors that contribute to teen pregnancy.
Enter Girls Inc. I stumbled upon a description of this organization’s efforts — specifically the branch that operates in Memphis, TN — while researching for another post, and was blown away by their action plan for reducing pregnancy among teen girls. Here are my top 5 reasons as to why they’ve got it right and others around the nation should be emulating them.
1. Filling a Void
There is, without a doubt, a lack of explicit instruction available for young girls regarding healthy female images and roles in relationships. This is dangerous for young women developing a sense of self. Think about it: if someone tells you something repeatedly, you’ll eventually start to believe it. On the flip side, however, if someone doesn’t tell you something — you’re strong, smart, and beautiful just the way you are, for example — you won’t believe it.
Not only that, but you’ll take your own steps and look to your immediate surroundings to fill in the gaps. Obviously, girls (and boys) learn from those around them. They turn to their friends, mothers, aunts, older sisters…basically every female they come in contact with on a regular basis to figure out how they should act and what their role is in their immediate surroundings. Unfortunately, they’re not always given the most ideal representation, and can unwittingly open themselves up to low-self esteem, exploitation, abusive relationships and risky behaviors that lead to teen pregnancy.
Consequently, it’s super important for programs like Girls Inc. to exist — especially in areas with high risk factors for teenage girls. Memphis seems like an ideal starting point, and this organization has been active there for more than 60 years. According to a report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, there are apparently 2,131 teen births per year in Memphis. Additionally, Memphis City Schools’ graduation rate is 60% with 4,109 drops outs — a significant number, especially since 30% of girls who drop out of high school cite pregnancy as the main factor.
Girls Inc. has attempted to remedy this by focusing primarily on helping girls ages 6-18 become confident, independent young women in addition to teaching them about sexual health. As you’ll see on the next page, they seem to have a pretty comprehensive way of going about it.
Girls Inc. seems to understand that teen pregnancy doesn’t exist in a bubble, so neither should the solution. In addition to their programs that center on the how and why of not getting pregnant at a young age, they focus on five other areas aimed at building teen girls into confident, capable, well-rounded young women.
Their “Leadership/Community Action” program teaches the girls about community service and highlights the influence of female leaders in their area. “Friendly Peersuasion” tackles the difficult topics of substance abuse and managing the stress that accompanies peer pressure. It also gives participants a chance to act as positive role models for younger girls. “Media Literacy” seems an essential program to helping girls build a positive self image, especially with the rise of the internet and social media. Girls in this program have the opportunity to critically evaluate the image of women that is presented in the media, rip it apart, and develop their own, healthier version.
“Operation SMART” increases the girls’ exposure to science, technology, engineering and math fields, and their remaining programs include self defense, financial literacy (starting at age 6! Hooray!), and athletics. They don’t seem to have left much out. I’m not sure there’s any doubt that such a wide range of programming provides the teens Girls Inc. serves with the emotional and practical support they need to make good life choices and steer clear of many more risk factors than just teen pregnancy.
Girls Inc. also recognizes the importance of attacking an issue before it morphs into a problem. As a result, their pregnancy prevention programs aren’t just aimed at teens or pre-teens, but start with age appropriate curriculum in elementary school and follow students through middle and high school years. Their culminating activity for high schoolers involves a retreat called “Baby, Think it over,” at which the girls are given lifelike dolls and realistic financial dilemmas to solve as part of a simulation of motherhood.
Hard work and personal growth deserve recognition, and Girls Inc. seems to have a number of events aimed at doing just that. When I browsed their website, I found pictures and programs from luncheons and awards ceremonies at which girls, mentors and staff were honored for either their progress or dedication. There was also mention of a mother-daughter summit, an event that apparently celebrates the importance of a healthy mother-daughter relationship as well as provides opportunities for them to learn together about self-esteem and bullying issues.
Not to leave out positive male role models, they also seem to hold an annual Red and White Ball. Participants get to dress up and simply have fun being a girl, but are also involved in conversations about positive relationships with males and participate in a father-daughter dance.
The more the merrier is definitely true when it comes to preventing teen pregnancy. Girls Inc., Memphis has recognized that and has collaborated with a number of other organizations active in the Memphis area. The result is Memphis Teen Vision, or MemTV, a collaboration of 25 different community, school and local government organizations focused on bringing down pregnancy rates among teenage girls.
Through MemTV, Girls Inc. is able to keep Memphis City Schools informed of the impact their program has on reducing teen pregnancy as well as collaborate with other organizations working towards the same purpose. This allows them to secure support for their programs within the school district — including within the school day, which is extremely hard to do given already jam-packed curricula — as well as gain access to students’ academic data in an effort to better support the girls they serve. Additionally, Memphis City Schools also chose Girls Inc. to participate in the school district’s launch of Education Beyond the Classroom, opening up school sponsored programs to the greater community.
So obviously a comprehensive, impressive effort, but is it working? I was unable to find data showing teen pregnancy rates and/or their effect on dropout rates specifically for Memphis City Schools (please post in comments if you know of their existence), but did dig up a few other promising tidbits. According to statistics from the State of Tennessee Department of Health, births among African American girls ages 10-19 in Shelby county (which includes Memphis) fell from 58.1% to 50% between 2009 and 2010.
Maybe a small decline, but a decline all the same. Additionally, in an evaluation carried out by the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis, girls who participated in Girls Inc. during the course of an academic year made improvements in multiple areas. Girls Inc. students scored higher on standardized state tests, reported greater emotional resilience, improved body image and overall had a lower rate of sexual activity when compared with MCS students in general.
To me, this is extremely encouraging. So many factors are at work when it comes to teen pregnancy. Sex education, contraception and abstinence promotion obviously play a role, but it’s refreshing and commendable that Girls Inc. has developed programming that treats the whole girl, not just her uterus. If more organizations focus on nurturing young women emotionally, connecting them with role models, giving them tools to be confident, independent thinkers, and setting them up for academic and financial success, I’m certain that more young women will be in a position to take control of their own lives and teen pregnancy rates will continue to fall.
Do you know of any organizations fighting the good fight (and winning) against teen pregnancy? Leave your comments below.
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