A Global Approach to Improving Outcomes for Teen Mothers and Their Babies

New Cooperation UVA Humanitarian Collaborative
Batten professor Lucy Bassett brings researchers from around the world together to tackle an issue that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2002, Lucy Bassett, joined the Peace Corps and served for two years in Climentoro, Guatemala, a village at an elevation of roughly 10,000 feet. The first friends she made in the indigenous K’iche’ community were children. “When you’re new somewhere, it’s always really easy, at least for me, to connect with kids first,” she said. “They don’t care if your language is perfect, as long as you play and interact.”

Bassett, today an associate professor of practice of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, said that in Guatemala, she quickly noticed that many of the children she met had stunted growth from chronic malnutrition. She worked with indigenous women’s groups there to promote child nutrition and learning. When Bassett returned to the village for a visit several years after her Peace Corps stint had ended, many of the girls she had befriended before were married with children of their own.

Influenced by her experiences, Bassett has devoted her career to improving the lives of poor and marginalized children, especially in terms of improving access to education, nutrition, and social protection services. “The work I do now [at UVA] always brings me back to both those babies and the teen girls that I knew [in Guatemala],” she said.

After working as a researcher for the International Food Policy Research Institute, a program evaluator at UNICEF in India, and as an Education and Social Protection Specialist at the World Bank, among other positions, she brought her experience to Batten in 2018, where she teaches courses on topics like global early childhood development and children in crisis at the U.S./Mexico border.

Her latest research focuses on an issue that has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic  –– adolescent mothers and young children. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 12 million girls between the ages of 15-19 give birth each year. During the during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, teen pregnancies spiked in Africa, South Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere, due, in part, to school closures, joblessness, an increase in gender and sexual violence, and a decrease in access to health services, again according to WHO.

Bassett began discussing this troubling data with international colleagues, homing in on how to improve outcomes for not only the babies of teen mothers, but also for the young mothers themselves. “For those of us working on early childhood issues, there’s always a question of [helping] not just the kid, but the family — the parents and the mom,” Bassett said. “There’s more and more attention being paid to the caregiver in the field and the challenges that those caregivers face and the fact that kids can only grow and develop optimally if the people taking care of them are in good shape and are supported.”

Bassett UVA Humanitarian Collaborative
The workshop, held in Minneapolis, convened research teams from UVA and New York University, as well as universities in Zambia, Malawi, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and Canada.

Workshop Brings Global Researchers Together

In response to these conversations, Bassett organized a workshop focused on adolescent mothers and young children through the UVA Humanitarian Collaborative, one of the research centers at the Batten School of which Bassett is co-Director. The workshop convened research teams from UVA and New York University, as well as universities in Zambia, Malawi, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and Canada. Bassett and Batten alumnae Maya Ewart (MPP ’22), planned the workshop, which was held at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in Minneapolis in late April.

Bassett, a native Minnesotan, said it happened to be snowing in Minneapolis when the conference began, and her heart swelled as she watched fellow researchers arrive from Africa and South Asia wearing big coats in the cold weather. “They were ready for the snow and the collaboration,” she said. “They were ready for it all.” For most of the researchers, it was the first time they had been able to collaborate in person since the start of the pandemic.

Although we have been collaborating for the last eight months, I did not feel a strong connection with other partners until I met all of them physically,” said Ashraf Haqan adjunct faculty member at North South University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who attended the workshop in Minneapolis. “I believe ideas and thought processes have an emotional aspect that is hard to touch in remote collaboration. In those two days, I had a chance to mingle with each of our partners jointly as well as separately, formally as well as socially. This helped me to understand their culture and its influence on their thought process better and helped me connect my thinking and ideas with theirs.”

In addition to collaborative meetings, the researchers also showcased their ideas through a presentation at the conference, chaired by Bassett. Panelists discussed a study on adolescent girls displaced by conflict and currently living in South Sudan and Northern Iraq; a longitudinal study of pregnant women living in the Rohingya refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; and research on policies, programs, and services sensitive to the needs and experiences of adolescent mothers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ewart said that the presentation “highlighted research gaps to further investigate, for example, how do risk and resilience vary across cultural contexts, and how can we effectively incorporate men, boys, and fathers into prevention and support programming?”

For those of us working on early childhood issues, there’s always a question of [helping] not just the kid, but the family — the parents and the mom.

Lucy Bassett
Associate Professor of Practice of Public Policy

What Can Be Done, and What Comes Next?

Post-conference, the researchers are continuing with their studies in various parts of the world, and, as a team, looking at the issue of adolescent mothers and children with, as Bassett calls it, “a two-generation approach. How can we support babies and their young mothers at the same time?” Interventions include helping teen girls go back to school, as well as helping them get childcare and job training. Bassett also stressed the importance of giving young mothers assistance with parental training. “How do we help them to understand what their kids need and how they can support them and engage?” she said. Finally, researchers are looking into the role of adolescent fathers. “How can the teen dads learn what it means to be a parent who helps to raise a healthy, well-developing child?” Bassett said. “Once [young fathers] engage with the babies, it gives them this positive feedback cycle.”

Bassett said one of the biggest takeaways from the Minneapolis workshop was the notion that “each approach has to be really grounded in the cultural beliefs, especially around marriage and childbearing.” While the group of researchers certainly aims to prevent child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, it would be naïve, Bassett said, to assume a prevention-only approach can address some of the more nuanced issues.

“For some adolescent mothers, especially in these crisis contexts, having a child brought them a sense of purpose and value in a world that makes no sense and is scary and overwhelming. … We don’t want to promote young pregnancy, but to build on the things that make [teen mothers] feel good or strong or positive and use that as a way to support them.”

Ewart will be a coauthor on a paper Bassett is writing on young mothers in about South Sudan and northern Iraq.

“Professor Bassett and her research heightened my passion for early childhood development and sparked my interest in dual-generation research,” Ewart stated. “I am eager to further delve into the impact of family and community support on adolescent mothers. Our research also highlighted the importance of recognizing and researching regional and cultural differences ... There is no one-size-fits-all experience for adolescent mothers or their children.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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