To prevent teen pregnancy, teach girls they have a future

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story Nov. 12 about the Clayton County Board of Health receiving a hefty federal grant of $4.25 million to address the county’s teen pregnancy problem. As founder and chair of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP), which works to end teen pregnancy in Georgia, I firmly applaud Clayton’s effort to get to the root of the problem.

One glaring omission in the story: While Clayton’s was the only health department in Georgia that received such a grant, other counties in Georgia and metro Atlanta are battling the same problem.

Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett join Clayton in accounting for 80 percent of total teen pregnancies in metro Atlanta. What we know for sure at G-CAPP is, in large part, early pregnancies happen to poor and otherwise disadvantaged children. If we are to see substantial declines in teen pregnancy in Georgia, as well as declines in teen childbearing costs to taxpayers (estimated at $344 million a year), changing the circumstances for some of our most vulnerable young people must be a priority.

If Georgia is to remain economically competitive, we must ensure an educated work force. Parenting teens tend to drop out of school and often cannot take advantage of opportunities for schooling or jobs (when they do come along) because very often they are carrying the responsibilities of child rearing without the necessary support and skills to even do that fully.

We must also address poverty. In far too many cases, today’s pregnant and parenting teens were themselves children of poor teen parents, creating an intergenerational transfer of poverty. The way to break this cycle is to ensure that young people finish high school, further their education and get marketable skills. One key reason that poor girls give birth is because too often they see little future for themselves that would be compromised by an early birth. That’s why, at G-CAPP, we say “hope is the best contraceptive.”

The average Georgian may not realize how young many of these girls are when they begin having sex, as early as 13. It is also often against their will and too often with a member of their family or a close family friend; one out of three is the estimate. And many don’t have the parental support they deserve.

We need these girls to understand that their bodies belong to them and there is more to them than their sexuality — something particularly hard for an abused 13-year-old girl to grasp. This means we have to do all we can to prevent child abuse and augment our programs for healing these girls. We must give these girls — and boys — hope that they have a future. And we must educate young people about their bodies, about sexual health and healthy relationships.

This is an issue that ought to transcend politics. I urge you to help educate your neighbors, community leaders and public officials about how important it is that Georgia becomes the national model for investing in our adolescents — just like we did for early learning. This is imperative if we want to raise future citizens who are productive and secure because they knew during their adolescence that becoming a parent before you are a grown up is definitely uncool!

Actress Jane Fonda is founder and chair of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.