I was nine years-old when I started my First Communion course in the Catholic Church. One week into the course, the priest announced “girls can no longer wear shorts in this class.” I was furious and did not understand.
Between the ages of 9 and 13, many other episodes forced me to recognize that I was not equal to boys, that they had more freedom, that some men could be dangerous, and that I was vulnerable.
Despite that, I rebelled against expectations. My mother was not happy that I did not want to wear pantyhose or use high heels, as she and all the other women around us did. I did not like makeup, and I wanted the same freedoms that my male adolescents enjoyed.
It is no coincidence that I ended up getting a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies, way before it was re-labeled Sexuality and Gender Studies. My adolescent questions about women’s invisibility in public life were answered. I understood that for women, all around the world, biology had been our destiny.
This realization led me to conclude that there is no freedom without one’s capacity to control our bodies. I have since written about different aspects of reproductive health, rights, and justice (see https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Monica-Alzate-3). Adolescent pregnancy encompasses all of this, and I believe it is the most overlooked health disparity in the world, considering its prevalence and life-long consequences. Even more overlooked is the effect of gender norms, beliefs, and roles on adolescent pregnancy.
What adolescents are told about how they need to behave, dress, what they are or are not allowed to do, what or who they can become, what is acceptable socially and in private, have been determined by society’s norms based simply on one’s biology. The pervasiveness of this situation was demonstrated by a recent multi-continent World Health Organization-sponsored study in urban areas looking at the effect of gender roles on adolescents’ lives, particularly on young adolescents when they are still shaping their identity. The study found that traditional notions of gender places both, females and males, at different levels of risk. While females are at greater risk of gender-based violence, sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy, males are at greater risk of violence and early death. We could claim that traditional gender roles are making us sick and even killing us.
There is now a growing movement challenging traditional gender notions; it is opening up unimaginable possibilities for human beings to be who they choose, not who they are supposed to be based on their genitalia and physical traits. Like any social movement, it is risky, slow, painful, and it will take much longer to establish roots in low and middle- income countries and totalitarian regimes.
My personal and professional experiences inevitably guided me to look at how gender role beliefs affect adolescent pregnancy in Colombia, my home country, by using the latest (2015) Demographic and Health Survey and analyzing the answers of more than 8,000 female teens.
In line with recent research, my co-authors and I found that:
- The majority of female adolescents’ traditional gender role beliefs are associated with higher prevalence and likelihood of adolescent pregnancy.
- Adolescents who agree with men’s decision-making power have the highest likelihood of pregnancy.
- Greater adherence to traditional gender role beliefs increases likelihood of teen pregnancy.
Given the similarities in Latin America’s machismo culture, and the lack of opportunities among low-income Hispanic populations in the US, our findings can shed light on future adolescent pregnancy prevention interventions among Latinx teens in Texas.
About the Author:
Mónica M. Alzate, PhD; LCSW; MA
Family and Community Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not of her institution.
If you are interested in publishing a blog, email Alondra at Alondra@txcampaign.org