News Contraception

Dispatches from Jackson: Teens Having Sex is a Fact, Not Fiction, In Mississippi

Robin Marty

Unintended pregnancies, especially teen pregnancies, are a large contributor to the many other challenges that plague the families in Mississippi, such as high rates of maternal and child mortality, a broader health crisis, and skyrocketing poverty levels.

They could almost be mother and daughter, not because of similar features as much as their matching look—their tailored suits, their genteel auras, even the pearls.

So when Carol Penick, Executive Director of the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, starts saying phrases like “sexual positions” and starts talking about the large boxes of condoms they carry to events or the keychain-sized flashlights that read “Don’t do it in the dark!” it’s jarring, to say the least.

“It’s our veneer of respectability that often gets us in the door,” Penick quips about herself and her colleague, Jamie Bardwell, the younger of the team and the Director of Programs.

The Women’s Fund has managed to get through a lot of doors, first as a Jackson organization addressing the needs of women in the city and now, expanding statewide to address a critical issue in Mississippi, the teen pregnancy rate.

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There is little doubt that the needs are unmet. Unintended pregnancies, especially teen pregnancies, are a large contributor to the many other challenges that plague the families in Mississippi, such as high rates of maternal and child mortality, a broader health crisis, and skyrocketing poverty levels. Even the governor, Republican Phil Bryant, recognized that teen pregnancy simply couldn’t be ignored, although his solution of  abstinence-only education classes and arsenal of increasingly strange bills meant to punish those who impregnate teens was an approach that left much to be desired.

Unlike abortion, it’s not difficult at all to get a discussion started about teen pregnancy or sex ed. Everyone is happy to discuss it, as long as their ideas that are being represented. For advocates of comprehensive, age-appropriate sex ed, increased knowledge of basic biology, of how to prevent pregnancy, and where to get the supplies to do so, are seen as the easiest means of addressing the problem (and, by extension, the issue of abortion).

Bryant and his “absolutely no sex before marriage” compatriots are at least somewhat open to ideas, especially after being pressured by the public. After all, as Penick notes, sex education is now mandatory in every classroom, something that would have been unthinkable up until recently.

“The media focused so much on the fact that, once schools had the chance to decide whether they wanted to provide abstinence-only sex ed classes or whether they wanted abstinence plus (abstinence education that also includes discussion about types of prevention as well), so many of them chose abstinence only,” explained Penick. “What they didn’t write about was the fact that nearly half of those schools chose abstinence plus. That was a huge victory for us.”

It’s the type of sex ed that is still a disappointment, and the lack of real information that is being provided, however, that made the Women’s Fund begin working with partners to embark on some education of their own. Abstinence plus, although a step up from straight abstinence only, still had no clear direction as to who would teach the classes, how long they would be or how often they would be offered. The groups would be separated by sex, continuing the appearance that the information was somehow mysterious or inappropriate. Plus, parents would need to opt in, rather than opt out. Many parents approved and would allow their children to participate, but how do you reach more?

These were many of the reasons that the Women’s Fund decided to begin a project of their own. They brought in talent to develop a website, “FactnotFiction,” that addresses many of the basics of biology, the issues of STIs and prevention, the truth about condoms and pregnancy and other information that students aren’t getting in the classroom. “We hope that this supplements not just their sex-ed classes, but also the information their parents would want them to have, too,” Bardwell told me. “If a child has a question that the parent feels too uncomfortable or uncertain to answer, they can say ‘Why don’t you go to that website and look there?'”

If the site itself doesn’t answer the question, there is also a page where the child can ask a question directly, and receive an answer from a medical professional. “It’s not real time, but it’s still a great resource that they didn’t have before.”

FactnotFiction provides the education, but more visionary is a program that the Fund is hoping to launch that addresses what they see as a more pressing root of teen pregnancy—the lack of ability to see a future for herself, especially once a teen girl has become pregnant and does have the child. According to recent numbers put out in the group’s latest executive report, only one in three teens mothers receive a high school diploma, a staggering statistic of lost potential.

“Of the teens who get pregnant, only 35 percent of them are younger teens,” said Penick. “The rest are 18 or 19 years old. They have dropped out of high school. They won’t be heading to college. We have to find a way to help them still get an education, to be able to obtain real, meaningful employment with living wages, to keep them out of poverty and give them a future that is more than just getting pregnant again.

Penick refers to this as a  “two-generational approach,” one that cares for both the teen mother and her child. It’s a program that helps the teen mother get her GED, helps her find Pell grants, opening the door to community college—one that also provides quality daycare for her child, including Early Learning education programs. “It is education for her, and for her child,” she explained. “Mom goes to school, child goes to ‘school.’ Mom comes home and studies, her child gets to read books with her.”

It’s a way to break the poverty cycle, and one that the group is anxious to find even more groups interested in it so they can launch. “We hope to have many partners, soon.”

It seems like such a logical idea, and such an efficient used of money. An analysis from the Mississippi Economic Policy Center shows that in 2009, unintended pregnancies cost the state  $155 million. This is just examining low wages for teen parents and the lost tax revenue associated with those wages, and not even considering the additional health care costs, which would continue to add up.

The analysis clearly shows that committing funding towards real, effective solutions is a fiscally sound policy. So why is a non-profit like Women’s Fund forced to spearhead such an effort, rather than the state? “Well, obviously we’d like to ask the same question,” Penick said with a wry smile.

Apart from reducing teen pregnancy rates overall, it is hoped that these programs will help teen mothers avoid a second birth before they are ready, improve their ability to care for the child they already have, and improve their own chances for the future. In a state where the government is eager to avoid the “sex” talk and also force women to carry pregnancies no matter their own desires, these may be the best outcomes that can be hoped for at the moment.

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