Raising Strong Women: Reproductive and Sexual Health for Adolescent Girls
"Here’s to strong women. May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them." – Unknown
I often find myself coming back to this quote, and I am especially reminded of it on International Women’s Day.
How do we raise strong women? How do we support and nurture the transition from girl to woman? The answer is complex, but to me, part of it is ensuring that when it is appropriate, every girl is provided with the sexual and reproductive health services and information she needs, in a format that speaks to her.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in rural towns in Peru, I was inundated with stories of adolescent girls who were not accessing the services they needed. They rarely sought services because an adolescent girl on her own at a health post would raise many questions in the community. When they did access services, having conversations with nurses and doctors about contraception was difficult. Many times, the girls would tell me, they felt uncomfortable with the way these conversations went. Health professionals often made jokes, or didn’t explain contraception options clearly.
Furthermore, many adolescent girls I taught in the high school in my town weren’t receiving accurate sexual health information until after many of them had already started having sex. Unfortunately, for many adolescent girls around the world, this is not unusual.
Adolescence is a crucial development stage in transitioning from girlhood to womanhood. Adolescent girls are questioning the world and themselves, and they are curious about their changing bodies. They are exploring sexual and emotional relationships, defining their sexual identities, and evolving into the women they will one day become. The ways we talk to them about sexual and reproductive health, the services we provide, and the messages they receive from trusted adults matter.
Simple changes can make all the difference. Training health professionals to be better equipped to serve their adolescent patients without judgement, providing services in the community or at home, and producing messages in language adolescents will respond to are important considerations. Incorporating the opinions of adolescent girls in the planning and implementation process of reproductive and sexual health services is also a crucial step in ensuring these services are utilized. We owe it to the next generation of women to provide them with accurate and complete information on contraceptives and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), a safe space to develop their sexual identities, and services that are understanding of their stage in life. This is how we help raise strong women.