Teenage parents: respect their choices too
Society has always struggled with the issue of young motherhood. And the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) movement is no exception.
Our global agenda has always been about ensuring women, young and old, have access to contraceptive choices that will enable them to choose whether and when to have children, which in turn will lead to personal, educational and economic empowerment. Yet when faced with those who choose to become mothers at a young age, we often find those very principles uncomfortably compromised.
When we think of young mothers in the developing world, we think of child brides and forced marriage. Here in the UK, by contrast, we are confronted with the stereotype of single young mothers struggling to make ends meet, often used as political pawns and unfairly regarded a burden to the public purse. While each might provoke a different policy response, both suffer the same underlying prejudice and stigma.
Or, put more simply, for young unmarried women it's a lose-lose situation. Damned if they have sex, damned if they have an abortion, damned if they decide to have a child.
It seems that so many get worked up about other people’s choices when it comes to sex and relationships. So self-righteous, in fact, that we’re even ready to withdraw support from those we judge to have sex when many of us would not fail to support a member of our own families.
Society is clearly conflicted about the issue. But the SRHR sector is confused for different reasons. We want young people to know about the basic biology of sex and about taking care, taking precautions, taking responsibility and avoiding infections. We want them to understand options, understand emotions and the ways in which relationships work.
But what about a woman who actively wants a child when she is relatively young? She doesn't exactly fit within this construct. There are a few (far too few) progressive comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curricula which talk about motherhood and parenting, but, let’s face it, most references to teenage motherhood in sex education are firmly negative. There is a consensus that economic and educational opportunity is limited by early childbirth, as a movement… we risk not teaching young women about the choice to be a teenage mother because … it limits her choices.
But individual choice, whatever that choice may be, is absolutely sovereign. It must be. In the same way that we argue a young woman should have the right to choose an abortion, we should also accept that a young woman who chooses to become pregnant at 16 and who knows that she wants that child, needs to be fully supported. The SRHR sector should be at the forefront of working out ways to do this, and it should be at the forefront of delivering the solutions. Some of us are already doing that, but not enough of us.
A young woman who chooses to have a child should not be laughed at, she should not be denigrated, and she should not be disowned by family, friends and the wider community. But there is every chance that – until attitudes profoundly change – she will be.
So there is a job of education to be done, which begins with her peers and with the teaching and medical professions, and then spreads among the general population to challenge centuries of accepted prejudice, intolerance and double-standards.
Hand in hand with education, we also need to provide support. Practical, physical assistance which ensures that a young woman who chooses to be a mother is not isolated. That she has the help she needs, that she is able to meet with other mothers, to continue her education and gain the qualifications she requires or, if in employment, to return to work with the right support, which will be so essential to secure opportunities for her in her future years. And this is a global issue – not just one for the developing world. You will find young mothers being denied choices and opportunities regardless of where they live.
And what about fathers? Why don't we teach young men about being paternal, and support them in learning about parenthood, and enable them to continue their education and develop their role as fathers? Because, while this may shock many, there are thousands of young men (and older men for that matter) out there who want to be fathers, who want to raise children, and who make tremendous parents. The ability to be a good or bad parent isn't related to age or sex.
So if we believe in empowering young people, we can't exclude sexual and reproductive health and rights. As a movement, we must respect young people as individuals, and support them in their choices, regardless of whether we would make those same choices for ourselves.