Who are you telling to Just Say No?

A new government campaign to stop teenage girls becoming pregnant is missing the point. Who's going to mother the mothers?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was Paul who first suggested they should have a baby, says Anne, looking across at Paul. Paul looks unsure and laughs coyly, shifting his large trainers. He still has his white baseball cap on and he is still trying to look cool. But it is hard when you are perched on a plastic stool and squashed up in a tiny hospital room, which smells of antiseptic. "Was it?" he asks Anne. "Yeah, you did. We discussed it, remember?"

It was Paul who first suggested they should have a baby, says Anne, looking across at Paul. Paul looks unsure and laughs coyly, shifting his large trainers. He still has his white baseball cap on and he is still trying to look cool. But it is hard when you are perched on a plastic stool and squashed up in a tiny hospital room, which smells of antiseptic. "Was it?" he asks Anne. "Yeah, you did. We discussed it, remember?"

Anne is 15 years old, 16 weeks pregnant, and lives in a children's home, under the care of Southwark Social Services. She has just finished her GCSEs. Paul is 17, and lives close-by in a hostel for young men. I first met her at an ante-natal clinic, specialising in caring for young mothers, in south east London.

"Why did you want the baby?" I ask Anne. At first, she doesn't really want to answer this question. She bristles under the peaked cap and I can sense her thinking, who is this? What does she want? After a few moments that is sort of what she does say. "It's my business if I have a baby and nobody can tell me not to. Nobody."

The government's new campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy, details of which became public this week, is aimed at young women like Anne. The campaign is the latest evidence of the government's determination to stop very young women becoming pregnant. Britain today has a teenage pregnancy rate which is twice as high as Germany, three times as high as France and six times as high as the Netherlands. Rates of pregnancy are highest among the most deprived and highest among those in care. An astonishing 25 per cent of girls leave local authority care pregnant. These are the women that the message must reach if it is to have any effect.

But there are many among those working closely with these young women who believe that far too much emphasis is being place on preventing such pregnancies and too little attention given to providing them with support.

A study of pregnancy in care, Pregnancy and Parenthood, carried out last year, found that many girls who fall pregnant in care do so in order to "put right the wrong that they believe was done to them." The girls questioned talked of being good parents and building happy homes. "The sad thing," says the report's author, Judith Corlyon, "is that these girls are not given enough help to make a success of it. To tell them to 'say no' is far too simplistic."

"I don't care about no advertising campaign," says Anne. "I don't care what people think. I will be as good a mother as any of them. It's my baby and that's all that matters."

For Anne, it is clear that getting pregnant has meant that for the first time in her life she feels she is taking control. Until now, her life has been mapped out by social workers. She has been moved between care homes again and again. Her behaviour has been "monitored" and "reviewed" according to certain set standards. But here in the clinic, a new future is already opening up before her. She is making her own plans and they look bright. "I want to get a flat with Paul. Somewhere cosy," she says. She is beginning to think about how to bring up her baby. "I want to be open with him. I want him to know he can talk to me about anything."

She is preparing for adulthood. But Anne knows almost nothing of what is ahead of her.

The statistics suggest that the chances that girls like Anne can find success and happiness in young motherhood are depressing. Only half of teenage mothers are still with the father of their child one year after the birth, and a third are living completely alone a year later. They are three times more likely to suffer from post-natal depression.Their chances of qualifying for good jobs are very low as school or training is has been interrupted.

Anne, meanwhile, has to negotiate her pregnancy under local authority care. She will return after the clinic to a "home" patrolled by guards. I arrange to see her there a month later. It's a small brick building which looks just like any other house on the road, apart from the security apparatus at the entrance and the guards at the door.

I see her sitting all alone waiting for me, and a guard unlocks a door to a living room where we are to talk. There is a fish tank in one corner, and a picture of an Indian on horseback. The Junior Encyclopaedia Britannica lies on a shelf next to some pot plants.

I wonder how Anne spends her days. Does she sit in her bedroom worrying about the birth?

The other children in the home are all out at school so things are quiet, she explains, as she sinks into a chair, a hand on the neat bump under a sweatshirt. She seems less confident than she did in the clinic just four weeks ago. Less sure about her future, perhaps because the reality of the pregnancy is beginning to sink in.

"Does it show now?" she asks, touching the bump. She is wearing jogging shorts, trainers and a tracksuit top. "I don't want it to show yet."

Anne says it's "not too bad" in the home - not as bad as some of the places she has been, anyway. There is a quiet room with a computer where they can do their homework and a training kitchen where they can learn to cook. And she has her own bedroom, but not TV. "They promised me one, but they let me down. They said I had been a bad girl. Parents wouldn't do that.

"When I have the baby, I won't be dependent on anyone for anything. And I will spoil my baby. I will try and give it the best clothes and the best toys. And even if I can't give it the best things, I will give it all the love I can just to let it know that I will always be there.

"I want a boy because boys always love their mums - much more than girls do."

Anne's own mother died when she was five. Her father was unable to raise her and she was cared for by a succession of guardians and foster parents who all gave up on her in the end. Inevitably, she was eventually taken into local authority care, and has passed through a series of different homes and schools. There has been no stability in Anne's life at any point. No guiding light. She mentions a local community worker with whom she has formed a relationship lately. Someone who, she says, is patient and understands her. "She doesn't want to butt in like everyone else." But otherwise, there is no role model in Anne's life. But the baby, she says, has given her a new focus.

Anne says she first had sex when she was about 13 at a time when she had run away from a home and was living a friend. "Others were doing it. I suppose it was just the thing to do," she says.

She knew about contraception, but she admits she didn't always use condoms. "I suppose I didn't think about the consequences."

Anne met Paul at the local youth club, and found they had experiences in common. "It was a club for what they call deprived kids. Like us. We were both deprived."

I ask Anne why she got pregnant when there was so much she wanted to do in life. Did she never think it might make things difficult?

"I thought you could do both," she says. "Have a baby and a career. But I didn't really think about it that much. I didn't think about getting big like this.

"Perhaps getting pregnant is not the best thing you can do. But I am not going to give up," she says.

She was going out to school until her exams, but now that has stopped, and Anne hopes instead to enroll in a course in retailing soon at a local college.

"I know it's going to be hard, but perhaps it will make me even more determined to get somewhere because there will be two of us. I will just have to go out and get a job and some qualifications."

Anne says she didn't tell her social workers she was pregnant straight away, but waited until she was due to come up for her six-month review, when all those with responsibility for her case look at her progress in care. "I think they were a bit surprised," she says. "The first thing they said was, are you happy? Do you want it? They meant, will you have an abortion?"

Anne says she never considered an abortion. "I don't believe in killing babies." And anyway, she insists, this baby was "planned."

The next time I spoke to Anne, she had given birth to her baby. The birth was very premature. He was born weighing only 3lb 11oz and is still in hospital, where he will remain for some time.

"I am going to visit him every day," Anne told me by telephone. "I get the bus up from the home.

"I am happy the baby has been born but I want to bring it home. I want to bring it back to my own home. But I still don't know where that will be."

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