Baby Don't You Do It
Teen pregnancies and STDs have increased, reveal ethnic and racial disparities.
Girls under age 20 are having babies at a higher rate than the U.S. has seen in years, according to a new government study. After declines from 1991 to 2005, the country has seen an uptick in teen pregnancies, as well as an alarming rise in sexually transmitted diseases among teens, including HIV.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, national data from the years 2002 to 2007 reveal that one-third of teens under age 18 have not been instructed on proper methods of birth control, and that there has been a rise in cases of syphilis and HIV. Notably, very young girls, between the ages of 10 and 14, comprise 16,000 of the 745,000 underage pregnancies in 2004.
The report also examined sexual assault cases. From 2004 to 2006, about 100,000 females between the ages of 10 to 24 visited a hospital emergency room for treatment for sexual assault, including 30,000 girls aged 10 to 14.
The study also revealed racial and ethnic disparities among the numbers. Latinas* lead the numbers in teen pregnancies, with those between 15 and 19 much more likely to become pregnant (132.8 births per 1,000 females) than non-Hispanic blacks (128 per 1,000) or non-Hispanic whites (45.2 per 1,000). New cases of HIV and AIDS diagnoses were highest among non-Hispanic black youth in all age groups.
Maribel Quiala, LCSW, PA, southeast coordinator for the National Latina Health Network says that teenage girls don’t realize how many limits will be placed upon them when they have a baby so young. “Young women are unable to comprehend the many opportunities they could have in their life are significantly reduced if and when they have a baby during their teens,” she explains.
“Demands of parenthood will keep them from getting an education or learning a trade needed to obtain employment that pays well,” Quiala adds. “Studies also show that they will be less likely to marry and more likely to receive public assistance compared to women who delay childbearing into their 20s or 30s.”
Unaware that their adolescence will be cut short by the demands of adulthood, many young women face mental health problems once they become teenage mothers. “I see many times within the child-welfare groups I have consulted for that there is an increase in isolation and depression and the normal socialization is interrupted by the many responsibilities of becoming a parent,” she notes.
The key to preventing teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs, she maintains, is education. “In my experience in working with the various Latino groups I find that educating our underserved communities and empowering them with information is one of key aspects to reducing these high numbers,” Quiala says.
The culture is not conducive to frank discussions about sex, she explains, and economic circumstances complicate the issue as well. “Parents are not talking about the key topics during dinner—sex, STD, dangers of unprotected sex,” Quiala says.
“Even though it’s 2009, many parents still consider that conversation taboo, and for the single head of household parent who is Hispanic and attempting to maintain two jobs to put food on the table, that is certainly not a priority or topic of discussion,” she adds. “They are [also] not engaging in meal time with their teens and are not at home after school.”
After school, Quiala notes, is when much of the trouble starts. “[This is] when teens are usually more vulnerable to getting caught up in inappropriate behavior and activities as there is lack of adult supervision,” she says.
There are more reasons for the increasing numbers, says Maria Elisa Cuadra, LCSW-R, ACSW, CASAC, CPP, CPS, executive director of the Community Organization for Parents and Youth, Inc.
“The rising numbers coincide with the rising size of the population and the growing marginalization experienced by the children of immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants,” she maintains.
“Children and teens need to belong and to be valued,” Cuadra explains. “Hispanic children generally live in poverty, [and] experience rejection of their language and their culture on a daily basis. Children and teens live in constant fear of the deportation of their parents, something that is causing a sharp rise in anxiety disorders and in depression among teens.”
These mental health issues may have serious consequences, manifesting themselves in behavior that could harm them in the long run. “When children are marginalized and feel excluded by the dominant culture, they will seek new ways to belong somewhere,” she contends. “This gives rise to phenomena like gangs and other subculture groups that guarantee belonging, protection, status, and power—all things that poor Hispanic youth lack.”
Quiala agrees. “Latino teens that are newly-arrived to this country also experience acculturation issues and truly want to assimilate to their new environment and fit in,” she adds.
Poorer communities suffer from a lack of resources and structure, the experts say. “We are facing reductions of school programs and other social services programs which otherwise would be providing outreach and education to underserved populations,” Quiala, who says more teens need access to counselor or other trusted adult, notes.
Like Quiala, Cuadra says that after school hours represent a critical time in the day. “Children with greater resources are more to do after school that is structured,” she maintains. “This is a protective factor that is not available to Hispanic girls and teens. Hispanic children are frequently unsupervised after school hours until parents get home. This is the time that most early pregnancies occur.”
When marginalized populations see few options for their futures, they seek ways to enhance their self-esteem and sense of belonging. “Becoming sexually active and having children provides ‘something to love’ for many young girls and women who feel marginalized,” Cuadra explains.
With the daily threat of deportation, she adds, these girls seek a sense of permanency within the family unit. “Additionally, subcultures that come out of marginalization regard early parenthood as status,” she says, adding that poverty also contributes to the problem.
“In order to effectively reduce pregnancy, sexual assault, [and] STDs, Hispanic girls need to believe that they truly belong and are accepted and that they have a future that is equal to that of their peers,” Cuadra contends. “They also need to feel that their families of origin are accepted and are permanent. This creates the space and the continuity and stability for them to heal the trauma of immigration. Without clear status and belonging, early pregnancy and STDs will occur.”“There are a few organizations nationally doing empowerment and attempting to provide positive role-models,” Quiala concludes. “However, the work requires many more to join to be able to halt these increasing numbers among our minority youth.”
*The terms “Hispanic” and “Latina” are used interchangeably in this article.
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