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1995, the Founding of GCAPP
The Cairo Conference was unique in that it was the first time that women were central to the development of a U. N. conference's Plan of Action. These women were frontline workers from around the world for whom population growth was neither a demographic issue, nor simply a health issue. It was there that I discovered that in the poor, most populous countries, if you want to end poverty, slow population growth and create sustainable development, you must empower women and girls through education first and foremost. The same goes for Georgia.
Teen Pregnancy Is Not Just About Kids Having Sex and Being Irresponsible
Upon my return to Georgia, I traveled to different parts of the state to talk to our own frontline workers and to learn about adolescent life here. At that time, more than 29,000 teens were becoming pregnant annually in Georgia. I remember looking into the eyes of a 14-year-old girl in a hospital in Albany, Georgia, who was in labor with her 2nd child. I was told she lived in a shack that lacked running water and electricity. I knew intuitively that unless one could change the conditions of her life, there would probably be more children to come. Even assuming there was a family planning clinic accessible to her and affordable, what would motivate this child to use these services? What future could she see for herself that was compromised by having children so soon?
Girls who grow up in poverty and without hope of bettering their situation are likely to become teen mothers. The best contraceptive, it turns out, is hope. In this country, 80% of mothers who began their families as teenagers were living at or below the poverty line long before they became pregnant. Without early and on-going interventions, their early parenthood virtually guarantees that they and their children will spend their lives in poverty, most without a high school education and little hope of ever earning a living wage. This is the cycle that GCAPP seeks to break.
I discovered that keeping girls in school is just as important to reducing early pregnancy and parenthood in the U. S. as it is in other parts of the world. School failure and dropout are associated with many risk behaviors in both boys and girls, including early and unprotected sex.
Also, girls who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual coercion tend to initiate sexual activity earlier, have multiple partners and engage in unsafe sex. A U.S. study found that sexual and physical abuse are powerful predictors of early pregnancy. Some studies show that 60% or more of mothers aged 15 years or younger have been abused! Usually the abuser is an adult man, often a parent or family member. Sexual abuse robs a girl of a sense of identity, of ownership of her body. For these girls, the idea of negotiating contraceptive use with a partner would be anathema.
I came to see that while sexuality education, reproductive health and family planning services are critical components in any effort to prevent adolescent pregnancy, they are not enough. Too many other factors influence whether a youth has sufficient motivation and adequate access to contraception, or to act differently because of what she or he has learned in a classroom. In addition, family planning services that are appropriate for adult clients may too often not be adequate for young people, whose needs and problems are different. Clinics often exclude single adolescents, either formally or informally, through inconvenient hours, lack of privacy or judgmental staff.
For all these reasons, I created GCAPP, to broaden the traditional adolescent pregnancy prevention agenda in order to address the social antecedents that lie beneath the problem behavior. These include poverty, unemployment, violence, drugs, lack of good parenting, school failure and dropout, child abuse, alienation from mainstream society, racism and gender bias. This approach necessitates working not only with girls but also with boys, not only with their mothers but also with their fathers, with their communities and with society at large.
2012, GCAPP Gets New Name and Expands Focus
In October 2012, the GCAPP Board decided to expand our work from a singular focus on teen pregnancy prevention to a broader, more holistic approach. Thus, GCAPP became the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential. This new approach parallels that which was urged by the U.S. Office of Adolescent Health, which includes teen pregnancy prevention, physical health and nutrition, and healthy relationships. They see, as we do, that adolescence is the gateway to adulthood and a critical stage of development in which more attention and resources should be invested.
While there has been significant progress for children, not enough is known about adolescents – their situations, their habits, their dreams. How they come through this stage of life has a huge bearing on how they do as adults. As a result, we decided to leverage our current strength into something much bigger, and will broaden our focus beyond reproductive health to include physical health and healthy relationships. Our first new programmatic focus will be in the physical health arena. Georgia has the third highest rate for children between the ages of 10-17 who are either obese or overweight. We will connect the work back to the population we have served for the last 17 years and leverage our ability to mobilize, advocate and educate adolescents in a way that enhances their overall well-being.
We hope we can count on you as GCAPP continues to be a catalyst for change, as the reduction of adolescent pregnancy, poor health and obesity become more than a statistical blip. Please join us as we strive to provide a vital service for future generations.
Founder and Chair Emeritus