Growing up fast
: the sexual and reproductive health of young women in a remote Indigenous township

  • Susan Mcmullen

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis is a study of the sexual and reproductive health and decision making of young women in the Borroloola community, explored in the context of their daily lives, their cultural norms, and their expectations and aspirations. The primary ethnographic work in Borroloola was undertaken over six months between 2011 and 2013. Borroloola is a remote township on the south western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory and its long term residents are Indigenous people of the Mara, Yanula and Gawara tribes.

    My thesis is guided by the following questions:
    • has enforced social change, both historically and in the present, influenced and changed young Indigenous women’s expectations for the future?
    • how have community norms and expectations, growing out of historical and traditional influences, affected the lives and sexual health of young Indigenous women in the Borroloola community?
    • have the expectations and aspirations of young Indigenous girls influenced their choices in relationships and sexual decision making?
    • what health related, educational or community development based services do Indigenous women see as being relevant and useful?

    The attitudes and expectations of women, both old and young, in Borroloola are examined in the context of a long history of disadvantage over the last two hundred years, brought about by invasion, dispossession of land, introduction of alcohol and
    welfare, and the resulting collapse of traditional Indigenous ways of life. Many women in the community have become concerned about the plight of young women but the community has as yet no pathway to support norms relating to sexual behaviour that would encourage young people to make appropriate and healthy choices in sexual relations.

    The evidence shows that levels of sexually transmitted diseases and early adolescent pregnancy amongst young Indigenous women are significantly higher than for non-Indigenous Australians, and have long been a priority with many interventions
    addressing these issues (Stark 2007). Despite this focus, Indigenous young women continue to bear a significant burden of reproductive/sexual ill health. The literature surveyed demonstrates that young people’s sexual health is affected by their cultural and social circumstances and that intervention in these areas must take cultural and social circumstances into account for best outcomes (Carson, Dunbar, Chenhall, & Bailie, 2007).

    I demonstrate that young women in Borroloola are growing up fast, in terms of their sexual development and forming sexual relationships in their early adolescent years with a view to forming a family unit, in line with community expectations and norms. This can have significant impacts on their sexual and reproductive health, including a greater risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, and higher risk of underage pregnancy, and places them and their children at greater risk of experiencing negative long term outcomes. This also influences their developmental outcomes; they are sexually mature, but they disengage from education and often have minimal knowledge about life choices that are not linked to relationships and reproduction.

    The current strategies used to contain these risks include active surveillance to detect new cases, improved STI management, contact tracing, STI screenings, increased training of clinical staff, provision of good access to condoms, and health promotion
    (Stark & Hope 2007). In recognition of the continuing high rates of STIs and early pregnancies despite these strategies, the Northern Territory (NT) government initiated, and is committed to supporting research and implementing outcomes that may assist with the problem. This creates a challenge for current policy makers in the field of sexual health. Policy makers and educators need to make considerable effort to understand the lives of young Indigenous women in the context of their cultural norms and expectations, and design programs which would assist young women to overcome their disadvantage and their significant burden of reproductive/sexual ill health. These understandings along with the N.T. government’s commitment to implementing outcomes should increase the capacity of service providers to deliver effective services for these young women.

    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorKate Senior (Supervisor) & Richard Chenhall (Supervisor)

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