Sexual Diversity and Adolescent Girls

There are over one billion adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19, accounting for about 20 percent of the world's total population. More than 85 percent of these young people live in the developing world!

Topics explored in this section include; those at the heart of adolescence, including gender role prescriptions, body image concerns, the neglected experiences of adolescent girls of color, relationships with family and peers, sexual decision making, experiences at school and in the community, and health and safety concerns.

Despite substantial evidence on the success of both school-based health clinics and access to sexuality information, the majority of public schools do not sanction or provide information on enhancing the development of sexual responsibility and subjectivity in adolescents. As a result, female students, particularly low-income ones, suffer most from the inadequacies of present sex education policies. Current practices and language lead to increased experiences of victimization, teenage pregnancy, increased dropout rates, and combine to exacerbate the vulnerability of young women whom schools, and the critics of sex education and school-based health clinics, claim to protect.

Adolescence is a moment when sexuality, identity, and relationships are heightened; at adolescence women begin to be vulnerable to losing touch with their own thoughts and feelings. Cultural contexts that render girls' sexuality problematic and dangerous divert them from the possibilities of empowerment through their sexual desire.

Sexual minority adolescent girls may follow diverse sexual developmental trajectories. Many in the population are quite healthy, but some may be disproportionately vulnerable to health risks, perhaps because of the stigma associated with minority sexuality in society. If sexually active, girls in this population often have sex with boys as well as girls and confront risks attendant with sex with both genders. They may demonstrate fluidity in their sexual identity as they move through adolescence.

High rates of HIV-related sexual risk behaviors among lesbian and bisexual female adolescents have been documented. However, previous research has not adequately described racial/ethnic subgroup differences in risk behaviors within this population. Girls who identified their race/ethnicity as mixed, had more than four times the odds of reporting both unprotected vaginal sex with a male and multiple male sex partners. All subgroups exhibited risk behaviors, indicating that sexual minority girls must be included in HIV-prevention efforts targeting adolescent females.

Data also suggests sexual minority adolescent girls are more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, or use illicit drugs compared with girls who are heterosexual. They may be more likely to be victims of violence or victimization, be depressed or suicidal.

Over the last decade, support has grown at national and international levels for strengthening gender equity, improving reproductive health, and protecting the rights of all people - including adolescents - to make informed decisions regarding reproductive matters and other important aspects of their lives. The Convention on th e Rights of the Child (CRC), which defines childhood as ending at age 18, and the Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) jointly provide a comprehensive foundation for efforts to define and respect the rights of adolescents. Both documents acknowledge the close relationship between human rights and human development. Both understand the necessary relationship between rights and capabilities: without social and economic capabilities, adolescents will be unable to make choices, access services, and have productive lives. Finally, both recognize the impossibility of protecting human rights without promoting gender equality.

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