Empowering Girls to Navigate Adolescence

Winter 2022

Two teenage girls from the White Mountain Apache Tribe embrace each other.
The JHU team worked with teenage girls from the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Whiteriver, Arizona. (Photo: Ed Cunicelli, Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health)

Native American girls growing up in tribal communities benefit from a close connection to their tribes’ rich histories, customs, and traditions.

But in adolescence, these girls also experience rates of substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases that can be two to four times higher than those of peers across the U.S. They’re also at greater risk for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

To help them navigate this oft-perilous time in their lives by engaging the strengths of their cultures, a Johns Hopkins engineer is partnering with other Johns Hopkins University researchers to put helpful resources directly into the girls’ hands through a smartphone app called Safe Passage.

“With the app, information on everything from the biology of puberty to emotional and relationship issues, as well as how to quickly get in touch with people who can help, is as close as their smartphones,” says Tak Igusa, professor of civil and systems engineering with a joint appointment in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The app development team is led by Allison Barlow, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, and co-project lead Teresa Brockie, assistant professor in the School of Nursing and a member of Montana’s White Clay Nation, as well as partners — including teenage girls — from the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona and from the Sioux and Assiniboine nations at the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana.

It quickly became clear that simply adapting an already available app wouldn’t work for this project.

“Tech companies make a lot of marvelous apps, but their business model is, ‘We will show you how it’s done,’ and that wasn’t the approach we wanted to take,” says Igusa, who is leading the app design. “We wanted to learn from the community.”

To this end, the Johns Hopkins team has spent several years working closely with tribal leaders, adolescent girls, and their parents, as well as with teachers and health care workers, carefully teasing out the most important issues to address.

In the summer of 2019, a group of girls from the reservations traveled to Baltimore to workshop ideas with the Baltimore team. They spent a week developing quizzes on relationships and reproductive health; writing and recording scripts for content about birth control, pregnancy, and menstruation; creating journaling prompts; and more.

Despite pandemic-caused delays, the team expects the first iteration of the app will launch this year.

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