The first time I felt a real buzz of feminism was when I attended a conference organised by The Scottish Women’s Convention specifically looking to tackle issues facing young women. I arrived in my public school uniform and sat down at a table with a bunch of girls from the Gorbals and Drumchapel and was immediately greeted by an assertive small pale ginger girl who asked in her proud Glaswegian accent: “How far gone are you then?” to which I awkwardly responded by offering a formal handshake and introducing myself; first and last name.
The day I embraced feminism was also the day that I said goodbye to my judgemental, pretentious public school mindset. My eyes were opened by these incredibly eloquent teens who had grown up in damp towerblocks but who expressed themselves with great clarity and heart. I learned more that day about the social stigmas and gender discrimination from those young women than I ever did at posh school.
I learned that women have been cast into a role which sees them as primary carers for the young, old, the disabled and as secondary earners, dependent on men to protect them from poverty. Despite the development of the welfare state, the family continues to be the major provider of care and as the welfare state has withdrawn many of its services e.g. through then introduction of care in the community, the responsibility of care has fallen more and more on women. This may seem like one one small step for government but it is one giant leap backwards for womankind.
I learned that is especially a problem for teenage mothers who often do not have much or any support from partners or the government. A 16-year old mother will receive just over half of what a 25-year old in the same position in benefits despite the cost of nappies and dummies being the same for all ages. Age discrimination is no biggie though- never commands nearly as much media attention as does racism, bigotry and sexism.
Lone parents are 63% at risk of poverty and most definitely more so in the case of teenage lone parents and even more so again with female teenage lone parents who not only have to face social stigma but there still remains a 14.5% pay gap between men and women working in full time employment and a gap almost three times the size between men and women working part time. Most lone parents feel deterred by the idea of rejoining the workforce due to high childcare costs and losing their benefits- the government hasn’t made it financially viable for them to do so and at the same time has encouraged the folk devil of ‘teenage pregnancy’ for many decades e.g. Peter Lily and his infamous version of Mikado:
“I’ve got a little list
Of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out
And who never would be missed
They never would be missed
Young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list…”
I also learned that over the past two decades teenage pregnancy has become a key policy area in several industrialized countries. During the 1990s, both Britain and the USA identified teenage pregnancy as a national public health issue, alongside cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health, requiring targeted interventions. A reason for this concern was that rates of teenage pregnancy were perceived to be higher than those in other developed countries a notion that has been taken up and inflated by the media.
“Britain… has a sky-high level of teenage pregnancies.” [Daily Mail, 8 March 2008]
“The sexual behaviour of our children and teenagers has now reached such unprecedented levels of recklessness and damage that it is becoming a horror story running out of control.” [Daily Mail 28 June 2010]
I have since noticed that although there are constant reports on rising rates of teenage pregnancy this is not in fact the case. Data from A Gender Audit of Statistics: Comparing the Position of Women and Men in Scotland by the Scottish Executive in 2011; teenage pregnancy rates have steadily decreased since 8,080 recorded in 1976 to almost half of that with 4,113 in 2010. ‘‘While there is a continuing concern about rates in teenage pregnancy in Scotland, the absolute numbers of births to teenage mothers HAS (not have) decreased’.
I can see today that British policy makers justify their concern about youthful pregnancy and childbearing by comparing relatively high British teenage pregnancy rates with lower rates in other European countries. These comparisons are a feature of ‘technical/educational’ explanations for youthful childbearing (explanations that depict adolescent pregnancy as a consequence of a lack of sex education and poor use of contraception). Such comparisons are inappropriate for a number of reasons. They fail to take account of the variation in adolescent reproductive behaviour and outcomes in the rest of Europe (such as variation in pregnancy rates and differential use of abortion). They also attribute low rates of teenage pregnancy to sexual openness and sex education, yet the evidence for this is mixed. In addition, such comparisons assume that Britain can learn from the experience of other European nations, despite evidence that Britain is unique, in some respects, within Europe. Government and policy makers must recognize the multiple reasons for early childbearing.
What I would like to see in the future is the government tackling social stigmas surrounding the issue, people need to realise that many of these young women have few other prospects due to societal inequalities, especially in regards to access to education and until this is fully rectified, we have no right to complain. If this media-driven folk devil cannot be completely destroyed than at least let it encompass the dads who are at least equally to blame in the first place and many of whom (including my own) completely abandon their responsibilities, and are able to do so due to lack of societal expectations and law enforcement.
“I’ve got them on my list,
And there’s none of them be missed.”