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Gen.M: Empowering Youth for a Healthy Life

In a classroom in Austin, Texas, teenage boys and girls spend a week of their summer vacation performing skits about safe sex and talking about what it means to be a man or woman.

Springing from the creative imaginations of 14- to 16-year-olds, memorable catch phrases like "Don't be silly, wrap your willy" and "If you don't wrap it, you can't tap it" help remind them of the importance of using condoms to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

The unique exercises are part of Gender Matters ("Gen.M"), a new teenage pregnancy prevention program led by EngenderHealth that focuses on how gender influences adolescent behavior and health. EngenderHealth is a pioneer in gender programming, applying deep international experience from its Gender and Men As Partners® (MAP) initiative, which engages men in Africa and Asia and encourages them to challenge harmful notions of masculinity that impact their health and that of their partners.

The five-year program is based in Travis County, where the teenage pregnancy rate for girls aged 13-17 exceeds that of Texas, which ranks third in the nation for the highest birthrates among girls aged 15-19. In 2008, the cost of teenage pregnancy to U.S. taxpayers was $10.9 billion; in Texas alone, the burden was nearly $1.2 billion.

Through Gender Matters, young adults will be better able to protect themselves against the risks of pregnancy, disease, and violence in their relationships and to make their own decisions about if and when to have sex.

In its pilot stage, the program consists of a curriculum totaling 20 hours over five days. Using an innovative mix of workshops, social media strategies, and community-based events, the program fosters co-ed discussions about gender stereotypes and how they affect youth's health.

In one exercise, participants were asked to choose a gender stereotype they reject. "A stereotype I reject about men is that all men cheat," one boy said. "Because I don't." A teenage girl rejected the stereotype that all women depend on men. "Some do," she said, "but not all." These activities help young people examine, question, and redefine harmful notions of what it means to be male or female and enable them to create new positive gender norms together.

"We believe that youth have the power to make their own healthy decisions about sex and relationships," said Andrew Levack, M.P.H., Project Director. "We help them apply critical thinking skills to situations that are real in their lives."

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