"If you read the national narrative, we keep y'all chained to wood-burning stoves down here," Gov. Phil Bryant sarcastically told women at the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership annual meeting in January. He said it right after telling the group that the 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report ranked Mississippi fifth for its growing number of women-owned businesses.
Women in Mississippi certainly are not chained to wood-burning stoves. They do, however, make $11,500 less than men per year on average and make 17 percent less per year than the national average, a percentage that has been growing since 2010, as the Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women's 2014 report found.
They also live in a state with some of the most oppressive laws in regards to reproductive health in the nation. Earlier this month, the state chose to challenge a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision to strike down a state law designed to close the last abortion clinic in the state and will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.
While the state has made steps to address its high pregnancy rate as it compares to the rest of the country, it doesn't seem Mississippi is doing all it can to ensure women have the resources they need to control their destiny. The rate of births to teen moms is on a steady decline across the United States as well as in Mississippi. In 2007, 9,060 Mississippi teens became mothers, while there were only 5,644 new teen moms five years later in 2012. And that is something the state should take pride in.
But there's still work to be done. For instance, Mississippi has no accountability measure to ensure students are being taught age-appropriate, evidence-based sex education in middle school and high school. It is still illegal to demonstrate the proper use of condoms in schools.
The state began requiring institutes of higher education to create a plan for pregnancy prevention, but did nothing to help the schools develop or follow through with those plans.
A recent Brookings Institution report showed that the dramatic decline of teen pregnancy in the United States in the last two decades is due to greater access to birth control and increased educational attainment and job opportunities for young women. Access to reproductive health care and education is essential, but we often forget that simply empowering girls and women is also pregnancy prevention.
If Gov. Bryant wants to decrease teen pregnancy in the state, he should encourage women to pursue STEM fields, protect their autonomy by ending the war against their bodies, and support equal pay. And each of us must avoid double standards that tell young women that they aren't good at math or science or that they shouldn't be "loud" or "bossy," and encourage them to reach high and break glass ceilings—by modeling respect for women and girls in everyday life. (Banbossy.com has more ideas.)
"Simply put, increased aspirations and expanded opportunities for young women have the potential to extend the downward trend in teen childbearing," the Brookings Institution report states. Let's each do our part to make it reality.