On the first day of Gender Matters, the new teen pregnancy prevention program from Engender Health, a group of teens in the City of Austin's Summer Youth Employment program discuss gender expectations. They create a list that includes “boys don't cry,” “girls don't talk about sex,” “boys have a lot of sex” and “girls have to be virgins but they also have to put out for their man.” They break these down in order to pull out their harmful messages. How does balling up your emotions affect your relationships? If there's a double standard about sex for men and women, what inequalities does that create? Then the group brainstorms alternative gender norms and refers to that list throughout the rest of the five day program, allowing them to think outside of the “gender box.”
Gender Matters is a new Austin-based program in development by the international organization EngenderHealth which, according to their website, “is an innovative, science-based intervention designed to address a critical gap in teen pregnancy prevention programming in the United States — the impact of gender norms on the sexual and reproductive health behaviors of youth.” Instead of imploring teens to choose abstinence or focusing only on contraceptives and sex education, the program addresses gender expectations to tease out the whys and whats of teen pregnancy prevention.
According to Jenifer DeAtley, Project Coordinator for Gender Matters, “We look at how gender influences decision making and how young people interact in relationships. We think that if we could really break down some of those socially constructed norms around gender, that we could increase positive outcomes.” Engender Health takes this philosophy across all of its programs, stating on the website that “gender influences women’s and men’s health in fundamental ways, and some harmful traditional ideas about gender can place both women’s and men’s health at risk.”
Texas, with the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, is the perfect testing ground for this new program. Since Gender Matters takes place over the summer outside of schools, it's not bound by the abstinence-only curriculum many schools favor. The program engages in a twenty hour curriculum over five days, and each day focuses on a different topic. At its root is pregnancy prevention but they also include discussions about gender, relationships, condoms and contraception. They've also created a private Facebook page where teens from the program can keep in touch with each other year round, discuss what's happening to them at school, answer polls and post their own questions and social critiques.
DeAtley reflects with pride the conversations she's already seen happening on the page. “They're starting to question the media that's around them every day...to critique the narratives of supposedly strong female role models like Beyonce and Rihanna to look at what they're actually singing about... they're carrying [the program] on without us.” Gender Matters has taught them the skills to re-evaluate the world around them even when they go back to school.
The pilot launched this past summer in partnership with SafePlace and the City of Austin, and is being evaluated both by the federal government and an independent evaluator in order to create a truly effective curriculum. Once Gender Matters is established, other agencies will be able to use their model to launch similar programs nationwide.
For more information about Gender Matters and for information about how to get involved by supporting their community events, check out their website or email Project Coordinator Jenifer DeAtley.