Senator Caroline Menjivar Introduces the Youth Health Equity + Safety (YHES) Act
Require free condoms in CA high schools + expand access to the HPV vaccine
Sacramento, CA – Today, SB 541, the Youth Health Equity + Safety (YHES) Act was introduced by Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley) during Condom Awareness Week. This bill seeks to support youth health and well-being, address the sexually transmitted infection (STI) epidemic among California youth, and improve public health outcomes statewide, by expanding teen access to internal and external condoms and the HPV vaccine.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), condoms are an important and effective tool in preventing HIV and other STIs. Statewide data indicates over half of all STIs are experienced among California youth ages 15 – 24 years old. Young people in this age group make up more than 5 out of every 10 chlamydia cases in California, and more than 87% are youth of color.
Senator Caroline Menjivar emphasized the importance of equitable access to STI prevention methods, stating, “By requiring free condoms in all California high schools, we are empowering the youth who decide to become sexually active to protect themselves and their partners from STIs, while also removing barriers that potentially shame them and lead to unsafe sex. Further, requiring the Family PACT program to cover HPV vaccinations for ages 12-18 will decrease instances of patients delaying vaccination or becoming discouraged after being turned away. These programs can instill safe sexual habits among youth, protecting themselves now and into adulthood.”
Over half of teens who participated in a survey conducted by Essential Access Health reported that they do not have access to free condoms in schools. Of teens surveyed, 75% believe it is very important to have condoms in schools, and 25% believe it is important. Research studies have shown that schools with condom availability programs (CAPs) in high schools do not increase sexual activity among teens, but do increase condom use.
In California, some schools and school districts already provide free condoms in high schools, but condom accessibility and availability is not widespread. Requiring all high schools in California to provide condoms is part of a statewide strategy to curb rising STI rates and will build upon our state’s leadership and commitment to health equity and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care for all, regardless of zip code, income, age, race, gender or sexual orientation. In 2021, Vermont became the first state to require free condoms in middle and high schools.
Youth Speak Out in Favor of the YHES Act
“[The YHES Act] is important to me and young students because it provides us with resources to be healthy and safe… this is something really important to our education system and the health of all young Californians,” said Akshaya Aalla, a 10th Grader from Rocklin, and student leader with the California Association of Student Councils, a student-run non-profit organization founded by the California Department of Education.
“As a high school student, I’ve witnessed the numerous obstacles that prevent young people from getting the condoms they need to protect themselves. Price barriers, age and race discrimination, and other issues prevent some youth from obtaining condoms. I’m so glad that Senator Menjivar is pursuing this bill,” said Ria Barbaria, a 12th grader from Riverside, and Co-Chief of Policy and Legislative Director at Generation Up (GenUP), a California-based student-led social justice organization and student-activist coalition that strives to advocate for education through the power of youth voices.
“It is important to have condoms in schools because they add a sense of normalcy and reduce stigma around condom use,” said Isaiah M, a 10th grader in Antioch, a member of the TeenSource Youth Advisory Board. “When kids are in school we learn things that stick with us for the rest of our lives, and that should include how important and how vital condom use is for our health and safety.”
The measure also includes a provision to ensure there is no wrong door for HPV vaccine access by requiring the Family PACT program to cover the vaccine for young people ages 18 and under. While nearly 80% of California teens received the first of three doses of the HPV vaccine in 2020, the vast majority did not complete the full vaccination series, leaving them without maximum protection.
The YHES Act is co-sponsored by Generation Up, Black Women for Wellness Action Project, Essential Access Health, and URGE.
“If we are to improve health outcomes among young people in California, we must ensure that they have equitable access to the care and resources necessary to protect themselves and make safer decisions if and when they have sex,” said Onyemma Obiekea, Policy Director, Black Women for Wellness Action Project. “We are proud to co-sponsor the YHES Act, and advance proven interventions that help mitigate the persistent STI crisis in our state.”
“We have made significant strides in California to reduce barriers to sexual and reproductive health care - but youth, and particularly youth of color, face inequitable health outcomes due to systemic stigma and bias, and having to travel greater distances to obtain services. Expanding access to free condoms and the potentially life-saving HPV vaccine is the bold action we need to empower teens across the state with the services and information they want and need to be safe and protected,” said Amy Moy, Co-CEO at Essential Access Health.
“We know that young, BIPOC, and LGBTIA+ young people are not only the most vulnerable to STIs but also face the most challenges in obtaining sex-positive and accurate sexual health information,” said Faith Garcia, California State Organizer for URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. “This legislation is a step in the right direction to ensure that young people have the opportunity to take hold of their future, bodies and health.”
Youth Need Equitable Access to Condoms to Protect their Health + Safety
Condoms are an effective tool to reduce STI transmission, but condom use among sexually active teens has declined over the last decade. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) shows that in 2019, an average of 20% of California high school students were sexually active and 47% of those students did not use condoms during their last sexual intercourse.
Teens face multiple barriers to accessing condoms that deter them from seeking and securing the resources they need to protect themselves against STIs and unintended pregnancy.
Teens have also long reported being shamed and harassed at some pharmacies and retailers while attempting to buy condoms, including being asked to show an I.D despite the fact that there are no age requirements for condom purchases. Teens from across the state have also reported that retail staff have “kicked [them] out” of stores when trying to buy condoms, while others were flat-out denied condoms because they were “under 18” years of age.
Accessing the HPV Vaccine
Vaccination rates against the human papilloma virus (HPV) are down nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting teens and young people at risk of developing HPV-related cancers later in life. The CDC estimates that HPV is responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers, and about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers. Other cancers suspected of having a link to HPV include cancers of the mouth, throat and tongue. While nearly 80% of California teens received the first of three doses of the HPV vaccine in 2020, the vast majority did not complete the full vaccination series, leaving them without maximum protection.