A Missing Piece of the Prevention Puzzle

We can no longer afford to ignore the role of sexual violence in teen pregnancy, writes Malika Saada Saar.

Adria Roman, 18, of Boston, and her son, Diano Perez, 3, attend a rally to support programs to help educate young mothers about teen pregnancy prevention. Violence in girls' lives is often overlooked in prevention efforts. (AP/Patricia McDonnell)
Adria Roman, 18, of Boston, and her son, Diano Perez, 3, attend a rally to support programs to help educate young mothers about teen pregnancy prevention. Violence in girls' lives is often overlooked in prevention efforts. (AP/Patricia McDonnell)

Last month, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy hosted a congressional briefing on the racial and ethnic disparities in teen pregnancy rates. The research revealed that while 19 percent of white girls will become pregnant during their teen years, 53 percent of Latina and 51 percent of African-American girls will do so.

These facts demonstrate the significant need to develop culturally competent community- and school-based projects to educate teens on the consequences of teenage pregnancy, to inform teens about how to prevent teen pregnancy, and to expand access to the Medicaid, Title X, and State Children’s Health Insurance Programs girls need to manage their fertility and protect their reproductive health.

But there is even more that needs to be done. Teen pregnancy isn’t simply about girls and boys being promiscuous, or lacking access to sex education or contraception. Too often teen pregnancy is about girls losing agency over their bodies because of the unbearable injuries of being sexually violated.

Underneath the discourse about the educational strategies needed to prevent teen pregnancy lies a much harder and complex issue: Violence in girls’ lives leaves them at risk for teen pregnancy—especially for girls of color.

A significant correlation exists between childhood sexual abuse and teen pregnancy. An estimated 60 percent of teen girls’ first pregnancies are preceded by experiences of molestation, rape, or attempted rape. In one study, between 30 and 44 percent of teen mothers were victims of rape or attempted rape. Up to 20 percent of girls become pregnant as the direct result of rape.*

The Harvard School of Public Health’s exhaustive research on the lives of girls demonstrates that girls who are victims of violence from dating partners are four to six times more likely than non-abused girls to become pregnant, and eight to nine times more likely to attempt suicide.

Other research findings compare sexually abused pregnant teens to pregnant teens who have not suffered sexual abuse. The sexually abused girls initiated intercourse a year earlier than their peers and engaged in a wide variety of high-risk behaviors, including substance abuse. The average age of first intercourse for abused girls is 13.8, in contrast to the national average of 16.2. Only 28 percent of the abused girls used birth control at first intercourse, compared to 74 percent of girls in the general population.

Sexual violence is especially pervasive in the lives of girls of color. An unfortunate, historical narrative oversexualizes black and brown girls. Even today this narrative renders their bodies more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and devaluation. Approximately 40 percent of black women report coercive sexual contact by the time they turn 18. Native Americans are victims of rape or sexual assault at more than double the rate of other racial groups—and are more likely to be victimized by non-Native American perpetrators.

Sexual violence can play different roles in teen pregnancy. Many girls become pregnant because of coerced intercourse. Other abused teen girls become pregnant because girls subjected to sexual violence typically lose a sense of control over their bodies and often descend into a “disembodied self.” Unintended pregnancy can be the manifestation of sexually violated girls’ loss of connection to and agency over their physical selves.

Girls affected by sexual violence need support to reclaim their bodies and to make reproductive health decisions from a place of strength and health. Strength-based programs such as PACE Center for Girls in Florida and Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York seek to restore abused girls’ self-worth and alleviate the injuries of sexual violence.

The alarming rates of teenage pregnancy in the lives of girls broken by sexual violence—so many of whom are girls of color—require us to revisit the current discourse on teen pregnancy. We must recognize the role of violence in girls’ reproductive journeys, and emphasize the importance of effective, evidence-based, gender-specific programs and interventions to protect girls from abuse and to heal them if or when it occurs. That means any campaign to reduce teen pregnancy must also become a campaign to reduce the unacceptable levels of violence against girls and to give all girls the opportunity to realize their full personhood, equality, dignity, and worth.

Malika Saada Saar is the Executive Director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights and a member of the Center for American Progress’s Women’s Health Leadership Network.

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