(WOMENSENEWS)–May was Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, a time when many public health and reproductive health advocates trot out supposedly well-meaning campaigns aimed at reducing teen pregnancy rates.
What many of these approaches, including a 2013 New York City teen pregnancy campaign, have in common is the underlying theme that pregnancy among young people is terrible and should be avoided at all costs. That framing stigmatizes young families.
As vice president for strategic partnerships at Advocates for Youth, I know firsthand how public officials and reproductive health professionals worry about the social obstacles facing young families.
Their focus on pregnancy prevention, however, goes too far when it extends to scapegoating young families, blaming them for systemic inequalities or forgetting that they still need educational access and economic opportunity.
Pregnant and parenting students should not be held up as cautionary examples. Young families need support to thrive, just as all families do. And they deserve respect, as all families do.
For the last several years, reproductive health, rights and justice organizations–including California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Young Women United and Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health–have been working separately and together to shift the dominant and downbeat national narrative around young families.
At Advocates for Youth, where we champion policies and programs that support young people’s sexual and reproductive health, we recently conducted focus group research.
The findings detail very clearly that young families experience negative judgment from school staff as well as other adults in their communities at a time when they could most benefit from adult support.
Young parents interviewed by Advocates for Youth say the hardest part of being a pregnant or parenting student is facing discouraging comments and harsh judgment. “You need positive comments not negative ones, like telling me ‘you’re not going to finish school’,” one young father told us.
‘You Will Not Make It’
The message young families receive from their schools and communities is clear: you will not make it.
Many traditional pregnancy prevention models tout the “costs” to society associated with pregnant and parenting students, without acknowledging that many young people already experienced systemic inequalities before they became parents.
Messages such as, “If you finish high school, get a job and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not living in poverty” can reinforce the erroneous idea that young parents cause poverty (their own and others’), and assume that all young people have equal access to education, employment and other resources.
We know that isn’t true. For example, state governments’ ongoing divestment from higher education disproportionately impacts young people of color.
We must acknowledge that many youth, especially youth of color, immigrant youth and low-income youth, face barriers in their ability to lead healthy lives, whether they are pregnant, parenting or not.
We also need to dismantle adults’ assumptions that a young person’s life is over when he or she becomes pregnant and chooses to parent.
For many young people, becoming a parent can serve as a strong motivator to continue their education.
“My father passed away when I was 14 and my mom wasn’t really there,” one young mother told us. “So I was pretty much the party girl, doing drugs. After I got pregnant, I got back in school and just completely changed my life around. And I actually had something to look forward to.”
It is possible to be a young parent and a good student, and to contribute positively to society.
Unfortunately too few pregnant and parenting youth, particularly mothers, get this positive message. Instead they face stigma and often get pushed out. Official school policies and regulations are part of the problem. But the attitudes of teachers, administrators and support staff also contribute.
Inflexible or inconsistent absence policies and a lack of academic supports for young parents are just a couple of barriers that young parents face in trying to reach their educational goals. The ACLU of California documented these barriers and more in their January 2015 report, “Breaking Down Educational Barriers for California’s Pregnant and Parenting Students.”
Young people should not lose their right to education when they become pregnant or parents.
With this in mind, the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health launched their Family Network to support young families in Chicago “to identify programs, policies or procedures that directly impact pregnant and parenting youth.”
Most of us can agree that waiting to have a child until one is more emotionally mature and financially stable is better for both parents and baby. And with better comprehensive sexual health education and prevention programs in schools, we can help many young people prevent unintended pregnancy.
However, even with the best education and services, some young people will become pregnant and choose to parent. When that happens, we should make sure young parents have the support, respect and access to education and health programs that can help them be successful. Young families need our support; they deserve our respect.
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