The term “teen pregnancy” is no stranger in Indian Country. It’s an expression that gets used quite often, because Native teenagers have the third highest teen birth rate in the United States at 59 per 1,000 female teens in 2007. This figure is a reality for young Natives, who see this on a daily basis in our communities, whether in large urban centers or on rural reservations. I was appalled to learn this week that 15-year-old Shantelle Hicks of Gallup, New Mexico was kicked out of Wingate Elementary Indian Boarding School in October of 2011 for being pregnant. She was re-admitted to the a Bureau of Indian Education-operated boarding school for Native American students in Ft. Wingate, New Mexico four days later, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) informed school authorities that it is against federal law to deny a student access to education for being pregnant. However, when she returned, she was forced by the school administration to stand in front of a school assembly and announce to her peers that she was pregnant, before anyone but her own sister knew, because she was apparently setting a “bad example” for them. The ACLU and ACLU New Mexico have now joined Shantelle in filing a lawsuit against the school for violating her constitutional right to equal protection under the law. But this widespread shaming and blaming of young people who become pregnant—particularly in areas where sex education and reproductive health information are not readily available or happening at all—has GOT TO STOP. This case is an example of why we at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN)—a North-America wide organization working on issues of healthy sexuality, cultural competency, youth empowerment, reproductive justice and sex positivity by and for Native youth—are at times hesitant to even use the term “teen pregnancy” in our work. The phrase has become a label, resulting in stereotypes and assumptions. As an organization that is by and for Indigenous youth that works within the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health across Turtle Island, we know all too well the stigma, discrimination, and other baggage of misunderstanding that comes along when “teen pregnancy” is brought into the mix—mainly because it’s used in situations where young people are depicted as reckless or helpless because they became pregnant, and without any real agency. That is not to say that age isn't a factor for having better health outcomes and that getting pregnant at a younger age may not be ideal for a lot of reasons, but there is so much more to be considered. In Shantelle’s case, what was the state of sex education in her school or in the community? If it exists, is it even culturally relevant or specific to their lived realities? Is there access to things like condoms or other safer sex materials like birth control that are explained in youth-friendly terms, or even in their own language? Or is “just say no” supposed to work when a multitude of things that happen in far too many communities, like racism, poverty, sexual abuse, and other social determinants of health, are occurring? At NYSHN, we strive to meet young people at their personal level, giving them—as their peers—access to all information available and providing answers to all the questions they have. We also offer culturally and community-relevant information about ALL aspects of sexuality and reproductive health, so they can make informed decisions about their own bodies and spaces. A “one-size fits all” approach to sex education does not work, and we need to listen to what youth are saying about their sexual health in their own community. Yes, some youth engage in sexual activity, and this sometimes results in pregnancy. But we all have a responsibility when that occurs. Instead of shaming or blaming them for what happens, or pigeon-holing them into the “teenage pregnancy” category vilified on shows like “16 and Pregnant” on MTV, how about supporting our youth? Let’s support giving young people more information and options, and encourage them to embrace their sexuality and to have control over it, as many of our traditional teachings talked about before colonization tried to take away Natives having a healthy sexuality. Healthy sexuality is ours to reclaim on our own terms, and there’s no better time to start than now. Jessica Danforth is the founder and executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network that works across the United States and Canada in the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health by and for Indigenous youth.
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