Credit: Alizah Salario.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--When Bronx City Councilwoman Annabel Palma became pregnant at age 17, she kept her condition secret for eight months.
But now, in the wake of an ad campaign last year by New York City to reduce teen pregnancy that many denounced as degrading, Palma is telling her story and standing up for younger women who find themselves where she once was.
"Why are we spending taxpayer dollars that shame teens for the situation they're in?," Palma asked a gathering of about two dozen young mothers at a recent conference held at the Condé Nast building in Times Square. "They need to feel like they have a future after they have children, which they absolutely do."
"I want this administration to understand: fear tactics don't work with individuals," she added.
The campaign ads by the New York City Human Resource Administration appeared on subways and bus shelters across New York City last year.
One ad had a baby with tears streaming down his cheeks and the tagline, "Think being a teen parent won't cost you?" Another also featuring an unhappy-looking baby read, "I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen."
In yet another, a dark-skinned little girl looked up at the words, "Honestly Mom . . . chances are he won't stay with you. What happens to me?" The statistic "90 percent of teen parents don't end up marrying each other" was across the front.
The young mothers at the July 13 No Stigma! No Shame!: Empowering and Supporting Teenage Families Conference, co-sponsored by the New York Coalition for Reproductive Justice and the Resilience Advocacy Project, listened attentively as Palma talked about why shame over being a teen parent almost prevented her from running for office over a decade after she had her son. Instead, she discovered others drew strength from her past.
"I found out there were so many people in my community who had gone through what I had," she said.
More Effective Solutions
Palma said that increased access to reproductive health resources and information, early childhood education and work force programs that allow teen parents to go to school and work simultaneously would be more effective ways to help teen moms and to lower teen pregnancy rates than using fear and shame.
Teen moms who participated in the daylong event took workshops on reproductive rights and self-esteem, had access to free health and emotional wellness resources and connected with others who shared their experience. In between sessions, they ate pizza and doted on their children.
Many of the moms in attendance drew support from the conference.
Ana Rojas, 17, said she found the ads "just stupid." She attended the conference with her nearly 2-year-old daughter Joslyn to connect with other moms like herself.
"Teen moms, they're willing to go to school and give a better life to their kids," said Rojas." Not all moms are going to not work. To me, if you want to go to college, you can do it. It all depends on you."
Shatia Burks, 20, was homeless when she gave birth to her son Tie'von less than a year ago. She got back on her feet with help from A Young Mother's D.R.E.A.M, a nonprofit that helps teen mothers complete their education.
"Being a teen mom is an obstacle, yes, but it doesn't limit you to strive for your goals. I believe children are a gift from God, and my son motivates me to defy the odds," said Burks, who starts at Bronx Community College in the fall.
New York City's teen pregnancy rate has dropped 30 percent in the last decade, according to the city's Department of Health.
The Center for Reproductive Rights credits declining rates to sex education and the city's decision to offer Plan B emergency contraception to high school students.
A 2013 report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that the nationwide birth rate among teens is now half what it was two decades ago at its peak. Hispanic teen births showed a particularly sharp decline.
Credit: Courtesy of NYC Human Resources Administration.
Though rates have decreased, the stigma associated with teen pregnancy has not. Depictions of teenage mothers in popular culture as irresponsible and lacking in ambition, like on the reality shows "Teen Mom" and "Sixteen and Pregnant," often get more exposure than driven, high-achieving former teen moms such as Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, who recently received national recognition for her one-woman filibuster of an anti-abortion bill in Texas.
Stigma is still so strong that many teens hide their pregnancy and don't seek neonatal care, said Brooke Richie-Babbage, executive director of the Resilience Advocacy Project (RAP).
"What's really damaging about these ads is they go beyond implicit messages of 'you are damaged, you are broken,' and they are explicit," said Richie-Babbage. Instead, she said, the message young women need to hear is "you are powerful and able."
Richie-Babbage contrasted the New York City ads with RAP's Teen Fatherhood Initiative, which profiles young fathers who are finding support and stepping up in a challenging situation. The goal, she said, is to influence policies to help teen dads and empower them to become more effective parents.
RAP empowerment fellow Gloria Malone, 23, knows just how damaging the stigma can be. When she got pregnant at 15 with her daughter Leilani, her high school college counselor refused to work with her. Even some friends and family told her she wouldn't amount to anything.
Malone proved them all wrong. She graduated high school with honors and is currently in her senior year at Baruch College, where she studies public affairs.
Today she fights stigma with her Teen Mom NYC blog, where she provides support and resources for other young mothers. She also created a Real Teen Families blog that highlights successful individuals born to teen moms, from President Barack Obama to pop star Selena Gomez. Malone reached out to Palma about speaking at the conference and promoted the event on Twitter with the hashtag #nostigmanoshame.
She said she wants teen moms to be more confident in their abilities as parents, and as individuals, "because when people become parents they tend to lose their identities, and more so, I feel, with young parents."
Malone also wants teen mothers to know they must be their own best advocates.
"I'm a total advocacy and policy girl, so write to your officials, tell them what you disapprove of. Let them know that you're here and that they need to listen to you," she said.
Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Observer Ms. Magazine, Spirituality and Health Magazine and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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