Many rivers to cross: Center for Research on Women studies health and related barriers to women's wellbeing.
In 2007, the Center for Research on Women (CROW) at the of Memphis celebrated its 25th year of research on social inequality as it relates to gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Although Center scholars have conducted research on a broad range of women's issues over the last two and a half decades (including work, wages, and immigration in the U.S. South), this past year's work focused on some pervasive health-related inequities among genders, races, and classes in our own community. These included infant mortality rates, unintended pregnancies, sexual harassment in schools, and violence against women in college.
Infant Mortality in African American Communities
Memphis has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation. The rate at which children die before their first birthday in Memphis is more than twice the national average. In fact, there are poor neighborhoods in the city where babies die at a higher rate than they do in some developing countries. Babies born too soon and too small account for a growing proportion of infant deaths. And, infant mortality rates for African American women are double to triple those of Caucasian women.
In January 2008, the Center for Research on Women (CROW) began a comprehensive, four-year evaluation of "Community Voice," a new intervention by the March of Dimes intended to reduce infant mortality in African American communities. The program's strategy is to train individuals as "lay health advisors" who will then, through their social networks in the community, spread critical information on pregnancy, the importance of prenatal care, and specific newborn parenting techniques. CROW was contracted by the Tennessee Governor's Office of Children's Care Coordination to conduct this extensive "empowerment evaluation" in which evaluators contribute to the project's success by sharing information gathered along the way.
Sexual Harassment of Teens in Memphis Middle and High Schools
Sexual harassment in middle and high school denies girls full access to educational experiences and often has profound impacts on physical and mental health outcomes. A study by the American Association of University Women in 2001 reported that approximately 80 percent of students in public schools experience harassment from peers or school personnel when in school buildings or on school grounds. Another recent report indicated that 9 out of 10 teen gifts report experiencing sexual harassment, and majorities say they have received discouraging comments about their abilities in school and athletics because of their gender.
In 2008 and 2009, working in partnership with the Memphis Area Women's Council and with the support of the Urban Child Institute and the University of Memphis Faculty Research Grant Program, Center scholars conducted an investigation of the frequency, types, and long-term impact of sexual harassment experienced by teenagers in Memphis middle and high schools.
Among many disturbing findings, the CROW study showed that of the 590 students surveyed over 90 percent reported being sexually harassed at least once while in their current school. This pattern held in both public and private schools, with 91.3 percent of public school students and 85.5 percent of private school students reporting being sexually harassed by a student at least once while in their current school.
Violence Against Women on College Campuses
Current research estimates that as many as 1 in 20 young women experiences rape during college. Counter to widespread stranger rape myths, in the vast majority of these crimes--between 80 and 90 percent--victim and assailant know each other. Less than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes of college students are brought to the attention of campus authorities and/or law enforcement. In fact, half of all student victims do not label these incidents as "rape" even though they would be defined as such by current law.
As with sexual harassment, these criminal behaviors put women's physical and mental health in jeopardy and deny them full access to quality educational experiences. In fact, colleges whose policies and procedures fail to both adequately protect women from violence and impose reasonable sanctions on perpetrators can be held accountable for failure to provide equal access under Title IX.
From 2006 to 2008, CROW participated in a project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Violence Against Women. Called the "Memphis Safe Campus Consortium,' the project linked four institutions as partners (the University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Crichton College, and Christian Brothers University) in order to coordinate efforts to reduce and prevent relationship violence, stalking, and sexual assault on Memphis college campuses. Program components included training of students, faculty, and campus law enforcement and working to improve relevant campus policies in Judicial Affairs.
In order to better assess the extent and effects of these behaviors at the University of Memphis, CROW researchers surveyed hundreds of the University of Memphis students on their experiences with campus violence. Full results of the study are anticipated later this fall.
Adolescent Pregnancies and Preconception Health
At present, about half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned. Unintended pregnancies and lack of adequate reproductive healthcare disproportionately impact women living in poverty. At the same time, unplanned pregnancy is at the root of a number of important public health and social challenges.
About one-third of U.S. girls get pregnant by age 20, and less than one-fifth of teens say that they planned to become pregnant when they did. Teen morns are less likely to finish high school and more likely to live in poverty.
In 2006, there were 4,378 adolescent pregnancies for 10- to 17-year-old females in Tennessee--slightly more than a quarter of those were in Shelby County. While the adolescent pregnancy rate in Tennessee fell to 13.7 per 1,000 population in 2006, rates remain disproportionately higher for African American females (23.6 statewide, 26.2 Shelby County/1,000 population) than Caucasian females (10.9 statewide, 10.1 Shelby County/1,000 population).
Last year, CROW's Director, Dr. Lynda Sagrestano, worked with several community partners to begin developing a project that would address pregnancy planning, timing, and preparation for healthy pregnancy among urban adolescent girls, with the goal of preventing unintended pregnancies and adverse birth outcomes. In addition, Center researchers began initial development of a project that would assess the scope and segmentation of local adolescent sexual behavior and access to reproductive healthcare that would ultimately lead to the development of a strategic plan to reduce the number of adolescent and unintended pregnancies in Shelby County.
The Center for Research on Women
The Center for Research on Women (CROW) at the University of Memphis has investigated issues of gender, race, class, and social inequality for more than a quarter century. Its mission is to conduct, promote, and disseminate scholarship on women and social inequality.
An interdisciplinary unit within the University's College of Arts and Sciences, this thriving academic center is home to collaborative researchers committed to scholarly excellence and deep community involvement. The Center is regarded as a national leader in promoting an integrative approach to understanding and addressing inequities in our society.
The Center's approach to research, theory, and programming emphasizes the structural relationships among race, class, gender, and sexuality, particularly in the U.S. South and among women of color. This kind of action-oriented, community-based research strengthens the public's understanding of women's experiences and informs local, regional, and national public policy.
Research is but one piece of CROW's comprehensive strategy for addressing systemic health disparities; other strategies include education, policy change, and community partnerships. For more information on the Center's research, special projects, and community outreach initiatives, visit http://crow.memphis.edu.
Rebecca L. Terrell, M.P.A.
Rebecca L. Terrell is the Assistant Director of the Center for Research on Women and has worked with the Center since 2003. She has over 20 years of experience in nonprofit administration, including 15 years as Executive Director of the Florida Dance Association. She served as the first Administrative Director of the Memphis Area Women's Council from 2003-2004. Ms. Terrell holds a Master's in Public Administration from Florida State University.
Chart 1. Memphis and U.S. Infant Mortality Rates, 1996-2005 (Rate Per 1,000 Live Births) Memphis U.S. 1996 14.6 7.3 1997 14.4 7.2 1998 15.5 7.2 1999 13.4 7.0 2000 15.9 6.9 2001 15.3 6.8 2002 16.8 7.0 2003 17.1 6.8 2004 14.4 6.8 2005 13.0 6.9 Note: An infant death occurs within the first year of life. Sources: National Center for Health Statistics, final mortality data, 1990-1994, and period linked birth/infant death data, 1995 present, and March of Dimes, Peristats, http:// www.marchofdimes.com/peristats. Note: Table made from bar graph.