Empowering Young Parents: Teen Pregnancy and Reproductive Justice by Quita Tinsley
May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention month, a time that reminds me of my teenage experiences with sex ed. At my high school, our school nurse taught our sexual education. She was a staunch Southern Baptist, God-fearing woman. She was a teen parent, who became pregnant after her first time having sex. She also contracted genital herpes, which later led to the development of cervical cancer. Our school administrators were essentially using her as a walking billboard of why we shouldn’t be having sex, in hopes that it would influence us to take the “right path in life.”
However, her testimony didn’t prevent students from having sex. It didn’t protect any of us from contracting or transmitting any infections. It didn’t prevent students from becoming pregnant. And at 17, it didn’t prevent me from having my own pregnancy scare. I intentionally call it a scare because that’s what it felt like for me. None of the adults in my life talked to me about sex, but many of them told me that getting pregnant would be a detriment to my life. They told me that if I got pregnant: it would be the end of my life as I knew it, I most likely wouldn’t graduate from high school, and I would never go to college. They all told me if I got pregnant it would ruin my life, and the school nurse’s sex ed class echoed that sentiment.
So as a 17-year-old girl, I sat in a school restroom waiting for pregnancy test results scared and alone. For three minutes, my mind raced with so many thoughts, most of them ending with self-blaming thoughts about how I got myself into this situation. But, now at 25, I know how I ended up in that bathroom. I was a young person without any idea of healthy sexuality. My ideas about sex were full of shame and stigma, and I lacked information and resources. I walked out of that bathroom knowing that I wasn’t pregnant, but it would take years to come to terms with that experience and my lack of sexual knowledge.
My experience is not unique to me or to teens who, like me, grew up in rural Georgia. Many young folks around this nation are not being provided with comprehensive sex education nor the resources they need to make to make informed decisions about their sexual health. Young people are not being empowered or equipped with what they need and then are harshly judged for the consequences they face. This is most evident when it comes to teen parents.
Not only do young parents often times face shaming and stigma within their own families and communities, but within the larger society does it as well. There are billboard campaigns dedicated to shaming young parents in efforts to prevent other teen pregnancies. There are non-profits that are funded with millions of dollars to have advocates speak against teen pregnancy and young parents. And many of us have seen the ever so popular television shows highlighting how hard it is to be a young parent. They all continue this narrative that teenage pregnancy prevention is solely the responsibility of young people and that young parents, especially young mothers have ruined their lives. When in reality, young parents are showing us how resilient they are despite the little to no support that they receive.
Young parents who continue their pursuit of education despite the lack of accommodations are resilient. Young parents who have to provide for their families are resilient. Young parents who are constantly having to make tough decisions are resilient. Young parents are resilient and amazing because they are living and existing in a society that doesn’t value them nor provide them with what they need.
When it comes to teenage pregnancy prevention, we do not have to undervalue young parents. We can honor their resiliency, while raising awareness about the challenges they face. We also need to provide space and resources for young parents to share their experiences rather than constantly speaking for them. And we need to recognize that teenage pregnancy is linked to other larger systemic issues and we can’t expect young folks to be the only people to be held responsible for prevention.
So during Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Awareness Month (and beyond!), let’s highlight and uplift everyone who is doing work to provide young people with what they need to make healthy and informed choices. Let’s honor the young people around the nation, who are doing work to get comprehensive sex education in their school systems. Let’s honor adult allies and young folks who are working to empower young folks, including young parents. And let’s honor the young parents who are working to push back against harmful shame and stigma.
Quita Tinsley holds a B.A. in Journalism with a minor in Sociology from Georgia State University (GSU). She is the Youth Activist Network Organizer at SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW, a statewide organization working towards reproductive justice in Georgia. SPARK organizes women and LGBTQQ youth of color to ensure their ability to make empowered choices about their bodies, identities, sexualities, and families.
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