Constrained choices and early motherhood: young women in the regions

Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.

Gloria Steinem

I met a colleague last week, a striking woman and tireless community worker.  She told me about a young relation.  Even in her early teens this girl was an artist to watch. She was designing everything from friends’ birthday parties to project logos. Now, still in her teens, she is expecting her first baby.  The boyfriend is out of the picture.

An isolated concern? A love story gone sour? A time for rejoicing in a new life? Or a talented woman’s burden that may drag her down?

I hope the story will end well. That the young woman, supported by family, will be a confident, loving mother and continue to develop her considerable talents.

Her story is the experience of too many—disproportionately many—young women in regional, rural and remote Australia.  In the Gascoyne about 20% of 18 and 19 year olds are already mothers; in the Mid West 10% are mothers and in Greater Perth, only 2-4%.  By ages 20-24, one-quarter of women in the Gascoyne and Mid West have had a child compared to only 12% in Perth.

The causes of early childbearing are complex. They include a lack of opportunities for young women as seen by the lower rates of school completion in the regions.  A person who leaves school early is less likely to get further education or training or be employed, and earns less when she does work.

The lack of contraceptive advice and services is also a factor.  There are not services where a young woman can talk about her contraceptive needs and find the most appropriate one to suit her at that particular time. As relationships change, the contraceptive she got when she was first experimenting won’t suit.  Outside of Perth there are no family planning clinics or youth friendly health care services.  The ones that have been established have been supported by short-term funding and stop when the money runs out.

Researchers have found that faced with lack of other options, motherhood is very attractive for young woman.  Her family and friends rally around to help, and they respect her new responsibilities.  Having a child is a mechanism to get some regular income and possibly a home—things that may have been impossible for a young single person in a regional area.

But we should not be fooled into thinking that early childhood is a matter of free choice. It is a product of a constrained environment in which young women in particular lack the guidance and encouragement and wherewithal to find meaningful career paths.  Most women want to be a mother.  But early childbearing makes it very hard that women will be able to have the education and early work experiences that are essential to achieve a lifetime liveable wage for herself and her family.  While the fathers and male partners are important, young men face similar challenges. Like the young artist has found, it is not surprisingly that single motherhood is almost the norm among these young people who have made young families.

This is part of a series of posts on how regional youth are faring. The data comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s 2011 Census and specific information I generated from the excellent TableBuilders Pro program on the ABS website.

Thank you to Alan Bradley, CEO of the Regional Development Australia Mid West Gascoyne for commissioning this profile of regional youth.

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