They are labelled promiscuous, branded as benefit scroungers who have fallen pregnant in order to bag a council flat, cruelly nicknamed "pram faces" and mocked by everyone from their peers to politicians. But do the country's teenage mothers deserve such a bad reputation? This week a group of teenage mums will meet the Prime Minister to argue otherwise.
They are offended by what they see as the widespread negative portrayal of teenage motherhood – particularly Gordon Brown's proposal last October that teenage mums need to be placed in supported hostels and taught parenting skills. A handful of these young women interviewed for The Independent on Sunday say they speak for thousands of others in their belief that Britain's young mothers should be treated with more respect.
The country's teenage pregnancy rate is the highest in Western Europe, with 42,900 girls under 18 becoming pregnant in England and Wales in 2007, and 4,050 in Scotland in the same year. While this is frequently cited as evidence of social breakdown, many believe there is no need to despair.
"They are much maligned. Some sections of the media whip up opinions that are extremely negative, and there are so many TV programmes that prey on the image of teen parents," says Hilary Pannack, chief executive of the sex education charity Straight Talking. "I don't believe the majority of teenage parents are any worse than the rest of us. Ninety-five per cent of teenagers who come to us go on to do further education, and some of them are doing degrees and MAs."
Although the Government has failed to meet its 1998 pledge to halve teen pregnancy by 2010, teen pregnancy rates have fallen by 12.6 per cent during that time. The highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the country can be found in the neighbouring towns of Hartlepool and Middlesbrough in the north-east of England.
While some may be optimistic about the achievements of young mothers, others are less enthused. A spokesperson from the Taxpayers' Alliance said: "Taxpayers are concerned about teenage mums, particularly about a benefit system that offers financial incentives which encourage single motherhood. Taxpayers don't want to target single mums but they are concerned about a benefit system that offers such negative incentives."
'I didn't have any focus before my son was born – he guides me'
Amanda Mbiru, 18, Hounslow Mother to one-year-old Dontaye
"I was just about to do my GCSEs when I found out I was pregnant. A lot of my mum's friends gave me disapproving looks when I said I was pregnant, but I decided that I was going to keep the baby. I felt that I'd got myself into the situation and thought that I should just deal with it. I took a year out and now I'm in college full time, studying health and social care. I'm planning to be a nursery teacher, so I'll be studying for a few years more.
"Before I gave birth, social services told me that the baby might be taken away from me because they didn't think I'd manage, due to my age. I argued my case with them, and I've proved myself. My life completely changed when I had Dontaye, but it didn't change for my boyfriend. That is one of the reasons we split up; he just wanted to carry on living his life like before. If I didn't have Dontaye I don't think I'd be at college at all. I didn't have any focus before he was born; he guides me. I want him to have a better life than I have had; everything I do is for him."
'There is a lot of stereotyping'
Klaudia Kublik, 19, New Maldon, Surrey Mother to four-month-old Justyna
"I am training to be a peer educator with a teenage pregnancy charity. I want to show young people what it is really like to be a teenage mum. In schools they tell you how not to have a baby, but they don't tell you why not to. People think you get a council flat and lots of benefits, but that is just not true. I still live with my family, but as it is a small house the baby's crying wakes everyone up. So I'm planning to move into a supervised hostel for young women in March.
"I'd like to go on to university and be a teaching assistant. There are lots of young women who give up their whole lives when they have a baby. Tomorrow I'm going out for a friend's birthday and it'll be the first time I've been out since my daughter Justyna was born, four months ago. There is a lot of stereotyping that goes on. People who see a pregnant teenage girl think it is a one-night stand, but lots of girls are in relationships."
'People are surprised there's a father'
Naomi Box, 17, and partner Craig Shatcliff, 21 Parents to eight-month-old Tyler
"I'm still with the father of my baby, which I think surprises some people. People do look down their nose on you when you have a baby so young, but you can't let it get you down. We'd been going out for a year and a half when I got pregnant. My partner sees his son most days and we are happy together; we feel like a family even though we don't live together. I live with my family but am moving out soon. It is a big step having a baby, and it does put your relationship under some strain. We don't have much money.
"When I found out I was pregnant, I was shocked and just started crying. Craig was shocked too. He is training to be a mechanic and is on a low wage, but will be qualified soon. At the moment I look after my son full time, as I don't like the idea of leaving him with a stranger when he is so young. I left school at 16 and I used to work in administration. I would like another job like that when he is older."
'A baby changed me for the better'
Rochell Burton, 19, Birmingham Mother to three-year-old Reashay
"Having a baby has changed me for the better; babies make you grow up much quicker. I don't know what I'd be doing if I didn't have Reashay. I don't think people realise how much work it is to be a young mum; I don't have any help from family and the baby's father sees him only occasionally. I dropped out of school when I was 15 with no GCSEs, and then got kicked out of the family house at 16. I went to live in a hostel, which is when I fell pregnant. I had morning sickness and had to drop out of college when I was pregnant.
"Now I live in a council flat and am studying English and maths. I need qualifications if I'm going to be able to get a job and support my son. I don't want to be living off benefits any longer than I have to. I don't want my son to miss out on things because I can't afford them. I want him to grow up and go to college. He goes to full-time nursery school, which is very good. It gives me time to study and time to myself."
'People would throw stones at me'
Nicole Davies, 16, Birmingham Mother to one-year-old Tyoesse
"When I was 15 and pregnant, people would throw stones at me, and say that I wouldn't do anything with my life. I want to prove them wrong; when I'm driving around in my nice car I'll show them. I dropped out of school when I was 15, but since I had my son I've started a college course. I've been studying hair and beauty for the past seven months. It lasts two years and at the end of it I'd like to be a beautician, and hopefully own my own salon eventually.
"When I found out I was pregnant, people kept telling me to get rid of him, and I'd planned to give the baby up for adoption, but when I had him I couldn't do it. I live in a hostel. It was fine, but he has got asthma, and every time I cook his cough gets bad, and now he's starting to crawl there isn't much space. Looking after him was difficult at first, because there was no one to show me what to do."