Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

'Many teen mums are just lonely'

By Rob Broomby
British Affairs Correspondent, BBC World Service Radio

Community Forum
The Community Forum offers much needed support to local young people

With over 40,000 pregnancies to girls aged under 18 every year Britain has the worst record on teenage pregnancy in western Europe.

There are so many young mothers on the Gleadless Valley Estate in Sheffield that is known locally as "Push Chair Alley".

"If people's lives are rubbish they just think a baby is going to make it better," says Jackie, reflecting on the high level of teenage pregnancy in her neighbourhood.

But with her mouth full she struggles to make herself understood: this is sexual straight-talk, chewed over with sweets.

These teenage girls - whose names have been changed - are still very much children.

Loneliness

They are taking part in a sexual health project on the estate - one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Sheffield, and one with high rates of teenage pregnancy.

They are in situations where they are having sex and they are not in control
Julie Norburn
Nurse
Why does it happen?

"If their Mums and Dads don't care about them they think 'I won't be lonely anymore if I have a baby'," says another girl, riffling through the bag for a second toffee.

She is not the only one to mention ending loneliness as a motivation.

"They feel more grown up if they are responsible over summat (something), if they have to take care of something (a child) instead of being taken care of," she adds.

It is as if caring for a child - something few at this age are well equipped to do - will propel them instantly into adulthood.

The trained nurse in charge of the sessions, Julie Norburn, has an easy rapport with the girls, drawing out their own views when my questions fail or draw forth gales of laughter.

She puts a lot of teenage pregnancies locally down to alcohol and drugs.

"They are in situations where they are having sex and they are not in control," she says.

And that often results in risky behaviour, often driven by peer pressure, or in some cases because they "just want to have some love off someone".

A lot of the girls Julie sees got pregnant with their first sexual experience and many say they were coerced into a situation they did not really want.

Benefits issue

But does the benefits system - as is often suggested - act as a financial incentive for a young person struggling for independence, an income and a home of their own to get pregnant?

Steve Rundell
I know there are examples of young teenagers becoming pregnant in order to get on the housing ladder
Steve Rundell
Community Forum
Julie Norburn is sceptical, and says that she sees no evidence of that among the young women with who she works - but the girls themselves do acknowledge the possibility.

"My brother got his girl friend pregnant at 16 and they got a house," says one.

"They might not say it but they think it," suggests another.

"They get more money because of the child benefits and stuff like that," says a third - but her statement is immediately amended by her friend who adds: "But all the money goes to the baby anyway".

Maybe this is evidence perhaps that the message of the project is getting through to some.

Steve Rundell runs the local Community Forum, a beacon of training and positivity on an otherwise battered estate.

He admits there is what he calls "a sense of desperation" about the sexual behaviour here.

"I know there are examples of young teenagers becoming pregnant in order to get on the housing ladder," he says.

It is hard to know how many cases there are, he adds, "but the very fact that it happens at all is quite desperate and alarming."

Trying to take responsibility

Martin, who is 17, is "scared".

He learned recently that his girlfriend - who is younger than him - is pregnant, but what he feared most was telling his mum.

He is desperately trying to do the right thing and, against the trend in a recession, he has got a job.

The team are now trying to persuade him to insist on attending the birth.

But he has been in trouble with the police before and he is not exactly welcomed by his girlfriend's parents.

"If you can't take responsibility there is no point," he says.

He gives a heavy sigh and admits to some apprehension.

His young, broad shoulders are at least trying to take the strain but it is a lot to ask, and the prospects do not look good.

But despite his shock and apparent sadness, teenage pregnancy is "normal" here, he says.

People "get used to it", he adds, and because it is so common, in a way "no one is bothered".

Though he has not seen his girlfriend for a while, Martin says he is saving up for the baby.

His girlfriend will live with her mother at first, but in the longer term, they have got their name down for council housing.

But Martin he concedes that could take years.

Realistic approach

One of the battles the project here has is to convince young people that they will not be better off - or necessarily get a house at all - just because they have a baby.

In the precinct outside local youths tell me they call the area "pushchair alley" because of the teenage pregnancies here.

One boy just hanging around in the cold wind and still caked in acne, claimed to be a dad, though he shudders or shrugs when I use the word with its echoes of a role and a responsibility he clearly does not feel.

In the end teenage pregnancy is not about statistics but the real lives of young and vulnerable people.

In effect they are child parents, ill equipped to deal with the challenges of their own lives - let alone the demands of raising another generation.

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