Set the bar lower for young mothers

The government aims to get 60 per cent of teenage mothers into
education, employment or training by 2010. But the viability of
this target is being questioned by YWCA, the young women’s charity.
Its report, Great Expectations, coincides with the
publication of Youth Matters, the green paper on the
future of services for young people. Great Expectations argues
that, not only is the objective unrealistic, but that the 60 per
cent target is inappropriate for many young mothers.

Last year, I talked to young women who were being helped in YWCA
projects across the country. As the report points out, many face
multiple challenges compounded by lack of confidence, zero
self-esteem and minimal education. Yet, given support, time and
patience, many had flowered. But perhaps not to the point where
they met the government’s criteria of “success” – learning and

Great Expectations reveals that many are struggling to
satisfy even basic needs – health during pregnancy, secure
financial support and housing. The Maternity Alliance has also
produced a report, Support from the Start, Lessons from
International Early Years Policy
, by Jenny North, which
outlines how other countries – inevitably Scandinavian – give young
mothers and their offspring a sounder springboard in life.

Giving a 16-year-old mother £20 less in benefit a week than a
25-year-old claimant only adds to the struggle. On the other hand,
intensive home-visiting reduces post-natal depression, improves
parenting skills and gives babies vital stimulation. The
relationship research organisation One Plus One has been training
volunteers in deprived communities to be “community mothers”, with
great success.

What counts is another person showing interest in a young mother –
not sitting in judgement. The Centering Pregnancy Programme in
Canada brings together a group of pregnant women, under the lead of
a midwife, 10 times during pregnancy. They “self-care”, recording
their own weight and blood pressure, and discuss issues together.
Low-income women in the programme had fewer low birth-weight
babies, pre-term births and neonatal deaths.

A “good” pregnancy and birth, strong bonding between mother and
father and child, enough income and confident parenting are the
outcomes the government ought to be endorsing. Teenage mothers,
given customised help, can create secure and sustainable families.
Once personal foundations are strong, education and employment may
become the inevitable next step.

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