Karen Hardee on relationships, sex and having children around the world

Haardee said that in some countries, relationships, sex, and having children can be high-risk activities.

Karen Hardee: When half the world’s population is under twenty-five, it’s a hugely important population to be focusing on.

Dr. Karen Hardee is an expert on the health issues facing young people around the world as they navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood. She said that in some countries, relationships, sex, and having children can be high-risk activities.

Karen Hardee: Young people in developing countries face heightened challenges. Challenges of gender based violence, challenges of early marriage, and lack of knowledge about reproductive health.

Hardee talked about international programs that are attempting to change that by giving young people information about sex and its consequences, and teaching them about contraceptives. Hardee studied and compared 200 international health programs, to determine which kinds have the most impact. She told us about a program that focuses on girls ages 13 to 15 in Egypt, called Ishraq, or “Enlightenment.” Since 2001, Ishraq has taught girls literacy and life skills, introduced them to sports, and aimed to improve girls’ position in their communities.

Karen Hardee: The girls who were in these project activities had a lot less tolerance for violence against women. They had lower desire for early marriage, and they also had higher levels of gender equitable attitudes – that men and women should be more equal.

Hardee explained that one of the most important aspects of the programs she studied was getting women involved with their community, and showing them opportunities outside of their relationships with men.

Karen Hardee: For women to be able to exercise choice in reproductive health, it helps to have them empowered in other areas of their life. For example, if girls have more outlets in communities, then they’re less exposed to unwanted sex. And if they have job skills, again, they have other outlets instead of early marriage, sexual activity, and having many kids.

She said a larger goal beyond health is to change social norms – meaning, the roles that men and women play in relationships and society. That’s why there are also programs that work with boys.

Karen Hardee: What we focus on in programs for boys is to help them see that the gender norms they live under are not only harmful for girls’ reproductive health, but also for their own reproductive health. For example, they’re expected to act macho, and have many partners, not take care of their own health, not use protection when they have sex, in some countries they’re expected to be violent against women. All of those things have negative outcomes for girls and themselves.

Hardee added that these individual changes need to be backed up by a government that discourages gender-based violence, which is not the case in all countries.

Karen Hardee: We take for granted in this country that we can go to the police, and we can go the government. Not all young people have that insurance. So really promoting good, sound policy is an important component for young people.

Karen Hardee: Focusing on girls who are in a lot of cases at higher risk for poor reproductive health outcomes – clearly, because women are the ones who can get pregnant – just makes a lot of programming sense.

Lindsay Patterson