Young Women - Are They In Trouble?

  • Deborah Morris
Associate Minister of Women's Affairs

Women's Health Action Trust
Parnell, Auckland


Good morning. It is great to have the opportunity to be here today amongst women and health professionals who are so actively working to ensure the health and wellbeing of young women.

Thank you for the invitation.

Having looked at your programme for the day, it certainly looks as if the key issues affecting young women's health will be discussed. These are issues which relate directly to both my Youth Affairs and Associate Women's Affairs portfolios.

And rather than cover in too much detail, ground that will be covered later, I would like to describe for you some of the policy work being done that I hope will make a worthwhile contribution to the wellbeing of young women. I also think there are things that are not being addressed adequately so I will touch on those and I will also let you know about my views on certain health concerns.

I would like to begin by describing the work of the Ministry of Youth Affairs. The Ministry is the second smallest Government department. It is a little Ministry with a big job.

In addition to administering grants for Conservation and Youth Service Corps, it is responsible for policy advice on youth issues. The Ministry also works hard to communicate and consult with young people.

The priority projects currently include the youth suicide prevention strategy (which has now been published and is well on track), youth mental health services, sexual and reproductive health, employment, and education.

As many of the policy decisions that affect youth and women stem from work being done in other portfolios, contact with other departments and Ministers is vital. Thankfully Women's Affairs and Youth Affairs are in the same building - so there is no excuse for not communicating.

In spite of the efforts to ensure consultation, use of the gender analysis framework and consideration of the impacts of policies on youth continue to be patchy in other departments.

This results in policy advice to Ministers sometimes failing to take account of the unique experience of young women when it comes to accessing services that they so clearly need.

In the past year or so we have seen the development of one stop youth health shops. They are a good start because they are designed specifically for young people. The better ones have been designed in consultation with young people.

It is this sort approach that needs to be encouraged. We all know that young people don't respond well to being told what to do, and will often do the opposite.

Knowing that, we all have to find better ways of improving the choices that young people take. A good example are the recent ALAC advertisements. Instead of telling young people not to drink, they propose a scenario and ask a question: "Where is that drink taking you?"

The other important aspect of ALAC's approach is the fact that they took the time to design their ads alongside a group of youths who had been surveyed about their drinking habits.

The young people that I have spoken to all think those ads are excellent. And I agree. They are very effective.

So when it comes to meeting the health needs of young women seeking their advice is the best place to start.

I am of the strong view that enabling young women to take the right decisions must first start by ensuring that both information and services are available.

I could not believe the outcry last year when I advocated greater availability of condoms.

It did not seem to matter that I had couched that view in terms of quality sex education, parents helping to educate, and the need to ensure both physical and emotional safety.

A word of warning to you all: if you want to receive hundreds of irate letters from the moral majority say the word 'condom' in public.

Anyway, the Ministry of Youth Affairs is currently looking at the educational opportunities available to teenage mothers. This is because those Mums disappear from the school system and often become extremely isolated at a time when they most need support and education to be good parents.

It is difficult to get figures on how many young women leave school because of pregnancy. However, I know that a counsellor from a Hamilton High School estimates that at least 5% of Maori girls leaving her school, do so because they are pregnant. This is an unofficial estimate, because the young women are only known to the counsellor, having been to see her before, leaving. I can only imagine how many others would have left without approaching the school for guidance!

The school has subsequently established a sexual well being programme which is delivered by peer educators. The peer educators comprise senior students from the school and also young parents in the community. I know that the response from fourth form students who have been through the programme is extremely positive. Again, an approach that has the young people as the starting point.

The Ministry is also looking at the information and services available to prevent teen pregnancy and STDs in the first place. Unfortunately, a 'head in the sand' attitude will not change reality.

This work will complement the release of the draft Health and Physical Education curriculum and the Sexuality Education Guidelines. The guidelines will help Boards of Trustees choose a sexual health programme and provide information on how to consult parents and guardians about it.

To be frank, when it comes to safe sex, moderate drinking, not smoking and a drug free lifestyle the only way to achieve them will be to provide role models without hypocrisy.

That means every parent, teacher, community leader, grandparent and sports star getting it right. It is a tough call but I think it's a fact.

Youth have been characterised as the biggest cynics - and when it comes to double standards and inconsistencies, they're the first to spot them.

On the issue of cigarette smoking, the work of the Health Sponsorship Council is outstanding. I have been impressed by the ability of the Council to involve youth in Smokefree activities such as the Rock Quest and Stage Challenge.

Despite smoking being a major health risk for women, it is still associated with conflicts about body size and body image.

The thin, pre-pubescent stereotype is promoted in the media and is associated with health and desirability. Ironically, the fear of being fat is then effectively exploited by tobacco advertising.

The fear of being fat also appears to be more overwhelming than the fear of dying. Supermodel Linda Evangelista reportedly took up smoking again to lose a few extra kilos even after her lung had collapsed. And Jerry Hall's recent attempt to give up by hypnosis was only a goer if the hypnotist included a guarantee that she wouldn't get fat. Even young people in this country have been reported as saying "I would rather die of lung cancer in the future than be fat now".

I am pleased that we have the glamorous Smoke Free Fashion Awards and those great television ads that expose smoking for the life threatening and uncool habit it is.

Nonetheless, low self esteem is still a major contributor to the prevalence of eating disorders in this country. There are about 3500 women with serious eating disorders in New Zealand, and girls as young as eight years old are dieting.

Just this week I read an article in the Evening Post about a Teen Model contest held in Wellington. Some entrants were as young as 12 years old, but when competition organisers handed out chocolate and potato chips to the aspiring models, they were rejected for the guilt-free option of apples.

Young women are increasingly bombarded with images of the so-called perfect body, and not only are these images impossible, not to mention undesirable, for 99.9% of the population to have, but the pursuit of them is downright dangerous. Most people are aware of the array of eating disorders young women can suffer as a result of a distorted or negative self image, such as anorexia and bulimia. But research now shows that other conditions are also likely. For instance, Osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis has traditionally been associated with older women, but now seems to be becoming a young women's disease. One specialist who deals with osteoporosis said that up to 10% of her patients were young women aged 14 - 20. I found this figure astounding. It is an indication of how insidious those media messages can be.

I was also interested to note that young women taking part in harriers, running and basketball were more concerned about their weight than young women who didn't play sport. Which only reinforces the notion that actual body weight and shape, bears little relevance to the self-perceived image.

This is one area in which there has been little work on the part of Governments. However, it is increasingly becoming a fact of modern-day life so I am sure the time will come when it can't be avoided. This will be one piece of work where gender analysis will be imperative.

It seems that we have seen some important developments in women's health, but there is still some way to go. And unfortunately, many of the key issues are not just about dollars. A number come down to attitudinal change - shifting the norms within which young women make their choices requires the effort of all of us. I am a big supporter of programmes such as Making Waves and Family Life Education Pacifica - they're excellent initiatives. Just like the one stop shops for youth, they're designed to get it right for a specific group in the population.

And ultimately, by listening and working alongside youth, Maori and Pacific people, we'll get it right. ALAC and the Health Sponsorship Council knows this well.

I have often said that an "it's putting it right that counts" attitude is ok for household appliances. Young women need us to get it right for them in the first place: it will only happen if they are the architects and agents in the solution. Therefore young women's health is all about their participation.

Thank you for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you.