Everything is bigger in Texas -- and the fight for reproductive health and rights is no exception. Recently, I watched in awe as footage of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis's powerhouse filibuster live-streamed across my computer screen. With unparalleled conviction, Senator Davis stood on her feet for 11 consecutive hours to block passage of a bill that would severely cut access to abortions in the state. I cheered along as the Senator fought harder, talked louder, and stood up longer in an attempt to defeat a bill that threatens the very heart of reproductive health and rights.
There is still more work to be done to achieve universal access to reproductive health services, and I can't think of a more important time to build on Senator Davis's momentum. Things may in fact be bigger in Texas, and when it comes to the state's skyrocketing teen pregnancy rates, size matters. With more than 73,000 girls between the ages 15 and 19 becoming pregnant annually, Texas has the fourth highest teenage pregnancy rate in the United States. Despite these growing numbers, most public schools in Texas teach an abstinence-only curriculum, leaving teens without the sexual and reproductive health information they desperately need.
EngenderHealth, the global women's health organization that I lead, is working to bridge the information gap. Through Gender Matters (Gen.M), a teen pregnancy prevention program in Austin, Texas, we work directly with young people between the ages of 14 and 16 who are at a higher risk of becoming teen parents. During one week of their summer break, Gen.M teens learn how to communicate assertively to prevent pregnancy, disease, and violence in their relationships and become empowered to make their own decisions about if and when to have sex.
With our partners SafePlace, the Travis County Summer Youth Employment Program, and Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Gen. M uses a science-based approach to engage teens through workshops, social media, and video messaging. Gen.M workshops are led by facilitators who teach boys and girls together in small groups. The workshops offer youth a safe space to address harmful gender stereotypes and their potential to drive poor health outcomes.
It's gratifying to see the progress that is underway, and I'm thrilled that others are noticing too: Gen.M was just selected this week to receive the Healthy Teen Network's 2013 Outstanding Emerging Innovation Award.
When I last visited Austin, I met a Gen.M teen who said, "I've learned... that I'm in control of me, that gender messages are a whole collage of other people's opinions, and I don't want to be a part of that. I want to have my own opinion." Victories are bigger in Texas -- and being able to empower teens to make informed decisions about their reproductive health is truly a Texas-sized step in the right direction.
Follow Pamela Barnes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@pamwbarnes