When I need information, I go straight to my smartphone to find what I’m looking for. For millions of girls around the world without internet access, smartphones, or electricity, accessing information is not so easy. I didn’t understand the implications until I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Honduras.
There, it was commonplace to see adolescent girls with pregnant bellies or infants on their hips. As teen mothers, these girls likely wouldn’t return to school, thus their job opportunities would be limited, and they probably wouldn’t be able to escape the cycle of poverty that plagued their mothers and grandmothers.
Speaking with members from across the community, I learned that girls who became pregnant were generally not enrolled in school, were living in poor households, were married, and lacked the basic information to help them make informed decisions about their health and their bodies. The nurses asked me to provide teen pregnancy prevention training to the local high school students, they were reluctant to do it themselves because of “pena”.
Pena means embarrassment in Spanish. According to the nurses I spoke with, teens were too embarrassed to speak about sexual and reproductive health with adults and rarely went to the health center for pregnancy prevention information or services. The girls needed someone with whom they felt comfortable discussing sexual education. As an outsider, I fit the bill.
My female students explained that in addition to pena, they didn’t visit the local clinic, their best source for reliable reproductive health information, because they thought the nurses would tell their parents they were interested in birth control. Because reproductive health education wasn’t in their school curriculum, there was no local library, and internet access was rare, when it came to pregnancy, my students were stuck with whatever information they had heard from their cousins, sisters, or friends.
Throughout the training, my students shared dozens of pregnancy myths they believed to be fact. The lack of knowledge and bad information about pregnancy was astounding. These girls needed accurate information to avoid becoming one of the 16 million girls aged 15-19 that become mothers each year. They needed to know that complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls 15-19 in low- and middle- income countries. They also needed to know that children born to teen mothers are twice as likely to die in their first year as children born to older women.
The UN program Girl Up supports provide safe spaces where girls can meet with friends and mentors, receive confidential, and non-judgmental services and education, including pregnancy prevention. With safe spaces, girls are able to overcome pena and empower themselves with the information they need to make educated decisions about their bodies.
Take Action Challenge
I am using my voice to ask that world leaders prioritize sex education for adolescent girls. I invite you to tell the UN your priorities for the development strategy beyond 2015 at http://www.myworld2015.org/. Please, join the conversation.
Erika Studt works on the United Nations Foundation Women, Girls and Population team. Before joining the foundation in 2012, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the eastern Honduran department of Olancho. She graduated from the University of Colorado of Boulder with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration.
This post first appeared on Girl Up. Reproduced with permission.