One in four girls has underage sex, says report

One-quarter of girls have underage sex but fewer than one-third go to family planning clinics to get advice on contraception or sexually transmitted diseases, says a study.

One-quarter of girls have underage sex but fewer than one-third go to family planning clinics to get advice on contraception or sexually transmitted diseases, says a study.

Population Trends, published by National Statistics, shows the number of teenage girls having underage sex increased from fewer than one in ten in the Seventies, to one in four in the Nineties. Only 1 per cent of women born in 1931 lost their virginity before the age of 16. The number visiting a family planning clinic has increased from 1 per cent to only 8 per cent, in the 25 years.

Campaigners for sex education and advice for young people were alarmed that the majority of underage sexually active teenagers did not seek proper contraceptive advice.

They said those under 16 did not visit specialist clinics because they were not sure if they were allowed to. Clinics had a duty to try to become more relevant and user-friendly for vulnerable youngsters.

Although the report shows the number of girls under 16 becoming pregnant has not altered much in the 25 years, public health officials are alarmed at the rapidly rising numbers of teenagers with sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea.

Juliet Hillier, of Brook, the young people's sex-advice charity, said: "Underage teenagers are highly unlikely to visit their family doctor and if they are not going to specialist clinics then it is unlikely they are going anywhere for contraceptive advice.

The research showed Pill usage among women had decreased slightly for all age groups. One in seven 16- and 17-year-old girls was on the Pill.

Ms Hillier added: "Doctors are allowed to prescribe the Pill to underage teenagers, but young people also need to use condoms to stop the increasing numbers suffering from sexually transmitted diseases."

However, Cordelia Oddie of Family and Youth Concern, a conservative family charity, said that clinics were behaving irresponsibly by putting young girls on the Pill and handing out condoms.

"There is a big teenage sex industry," she said. "But these clinics should be finding out why such young girls are having sex. Good doctors know sex at too young an age is physically and emotionally harmful. The youngsters should wait until they are 17."

The report, which looks at the trends in fertility and contraception in the last quarter of the 20th century, also shows that women are twice as likely as their own mothers to remain childless. One in ten women born in 1940 remained childless compared with one in five born in 1960.

Women are also more than twice as likely to be single parents. In 1996 there were 1.6 million one-parent families. In 1976 there were just 750,000. The number of children in one-parent families has more than doubled, from 1.3 million in 1976 to 2.8 million in 1996, with four out of ten children being born outside marriage in 1999, compared with one in ten in 1979.

On average, women give birth at 29, three years older than in the Seventies. If the patterns have continued the average number of children born to each woman will have dropped to 1.7 in 1999, the lowest since 1977.

Fertility rates vary widely across the country, with women in the east London borough of Newham being the most fertile in Britain, with 92 live births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. Cambridge has the lowest fertility rate, with just 39 live births per 1,000.

The report shows marriage has continued to decline over the past 25 years, with an increasing number of people choosing to live together. The number of women under 50 who have never been married but are living with a man has trebled to three in ten since the Seventies. The number of cohabiting couples is expected to double to three million in the next 20 years.

Health inequalities between social classes increased in the 25 years. Life expectancy grew by 5.7 years to 77.7 years for professional men and by only 1.7 years for the unskilled, to 68.2.

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