According to a 2013 UN population fund report, young girls in developing nations suffer long term health and social consequences due to early pregnancy and childbirth. In developed countries, a teen pregnancy is usually less threatening to the health of the mother, but the disruption to schooling often leads to social and economic disadvantage for young mothers and their children, establishing a cycle of poverty.
It’s a cycle that Sydney-based RAISE foundation is working to break, by helping young mothers (generally between the ages of 13 and 24) realise their full potential. Sarah Herriot, a Program Counsellor with the BUMP mentoring program, spends a lot of her time combating some commonly held perceptions of young mothers. In her experience, many of the women who access the BUMP program became pregnant by choice. The reasons behind this choice vary greatly, but often stem from a generational pattern of early pregnancy, a feeling that they are in a stable relationship, or just yearning for a baby to love. Other young mums who come to BUMP are “one percenters” whose contraception failed. A smaller minority become pregnant due to the poor quality of sex education they received at school.
As you’d expect, life after baby is not easy for many of the young mothers. They might not have any family support, either because of distance or as a result of domestic violence. The girls also lose their friendship network, especially if they get kicked out of school. They usually find that their relationship with the child’s father doesn’t last and instances of domestic violence are high. “Not necessarily physical violence, but controlling behaviour by the partner, who controls who she sees, and emotional, financial and physical control,” explained Herriott. Financially, some will struggle and end up couch-surfing with friends or endure periods of homelessness with a young child.
The biggest hurdle young mothers seem to face is the widespread negativity that surrounds their decision to embrace motherhood. The unsolicited comment “You’ve ruined your life” is a refrain they frequently hear. Other questions these young mothers put up with include “How old are you?” and “Is it your baby?”, questions which older mothers are seldom asked, much less deem appropriate to answer! Dispiritingly, most of this commentary comes from older women – the mothers and grandmothers of the community.
“At BUMP, we attempt to break down the stigma they have in society,” said Herriott. “Many of these mums have never been congratulated on the birth of their baby, or told that they are doing a good job. BUMP provides a safe space and the opportunity to network without judgment, a reconnection to education through partnership with TAFE (an Australian network for skills-based training) and personal development.” The mentors at BUMP provide encouragement and support to keep the young mothers focussed on their goals. Empowering the young mothers with the belief that options and choices for the future are still available to them is another important focus at BUMP.
The BUMP mentors see a big increase in the girls’ confidence as they participate in the program. “It has a huge ripple effect. It trickles down to their children and the community,” Herriot said. Mentors also report that their own perceptions have changed, often admitting they misjudged young mums. “Our mentors come to realise how resilient and amazing they (the young mums) can be.”
RAISE is an Australian organisation working to help young mothers realize their full potential: raise.org.au
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