Thursday, May 30, 2013

By Raquel Ortega 

The current conversation around young mothers is not only stigmatizing, it’s also incredibly insensitive. Campaigns such as #NoTeenPreg, launched by the Candies Foundation, present young mothers as inherently problematic - to themselves, their families, and their communities. The campaign proliferates messages like, “You're supposed to be changing the world, not changing diapers,” as if teen moms are incapable of influencing positive change. The Candie’s Foundation isn’t the first organization to shame young parents and unfortunately it won’t be the last. Advocacy organizations often respond to campaigns like this by explaining that the “real problem” with teen pregnancy is the lack of resources and medically accurate information about sex and sexuality. While I agree that these are often the cause of unintended pregnancies - 80% of teen pregnancies are unintended - we tend to avoid or ignore the question of why teen pregnancy is even an issue to begin with -- instead, we assume that it is intrinsically a problem.

The reality is that young people can change the world and having a child isn’t going to stop them. I am originally from Tucson, AZ where our State Legislature is constantly passing new legislation restricting access to critical information, resources and reproductive health services. Fortunately, this legislation is continuously taken to court and, like this week’s 20-week abortion ban, overturned. Arizona also has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country.

Needless to say, I grew up knowing a lot of young parents, some who experienced an unintended pregnancy and some who chose to start families at a young age. Regardless of their circumstances, they experience the shame, stigma and judgment that teen parents everywhere face. A good friend of mine, BreeAuna Grambo, who was teen mom shared her experience with me, “I absolutely felt judgment, even from my doctor! She constantly asked me if I was using drugs/drinking... she didn't have any reason to believe this except for the fact that I was 19.” The truth is being pregnant at a young age made things difficult but it also made them badass students, activists, and laborers.

In an article published in Journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy, Gretchen Sisson states that, just like my friends in Tucson, teen mothers do better than their peers who are not mothers. These women don’t just complete high school and college; they graduate with honors and straight A’s. They not only raise their children, they also work full time, balance responsibilities, and own their own homes. Rozalynn Jedinak, another one of my friends who is a young mom stated, “I think people have a tendency to doubt a young mothers ability to take responsibility for their child.

But speaking from experience the only thing you can think about for 9 months is how you are going to be able to support and provide for them.” Any disadvantage they had by getting pregnant is counterbalanced by the fact that they work harder. I am inspired by the fact that they manage to do so much despite the fact that organizations like the Candie’s Foundation tell them they should be ashamed, and despite the fact that politicians actively make it more difficult for them to be successful. It’s time for a paradigm shift.

We must invest in the sexual health of all young people and focus on preventing unintended pregnancies by making comprehensive sex education and sexual health resources more accessible for sexually active young people. Messages about young people and sex are overwhelmingly negative and even worse for young people who are pregnant or parenting. It's as if we require young people to be ashamed for showing evidence of being sexually active (by being pregnant or having a kid) so that we can punish them by withholding help or support. Yet young parents are incredibly motivated and when they have the resources they need they triumph over these disastrous expectations placed on them. Young women who choose to become mothers deserve respect and as much opportunity to lead fulfilling lives as women who delay their pregnancies or choose not to parent at all.

Raquel Ortega is a fierce feminist from the Southwest dedicated to uplifting the voices of young people and others who have been historically disenfranchised. She is currently at Choice USA in Washington, DC where she works with young people across the country to organize around issues of reproductive justice on their campuses & in their communities.

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