As a mother, it concerns me to know that there is a one in eight chance that my 15-year-old daughter could fall pregnant before her 19th birthday.
In reality, though, one would hope the risk is very low. I have already begun the discussion with her about safe sex, communication skills around relationships and how she should protect herself. But I work in the field of sexual and reproductive health and have all the latest information at my fingertips, and so the conversation comes more easily to me. For many parents, it doesn’t, and for governments, the lack of action is highly concerning.
The reasons for teenage pregnancy are complex and linked to a range of societal issues, principally health inequalities
Sadly, Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe, which, for a progressive country, is really disappointing. The Labour Party’s 12-year teenage pregnancy strategy fell well short of delivering its ambitious 2010 target of a 50 per cent cut in the teenage pregnancy rates.
While some progress has been made, a new survey of a relatively small sample of under 24 year olds, reveals that one in four young people questioned said they were not using contraception with a new partner. As a parent this is worrying. A lack of information about the types of contraception available was also evident in the study undertaken to mark World Contraception Day on 26 September, with many saying they were confused or did not have all the information they needed. One in five believed that the withdrawal method was a reliable form of contraception. Young people are seeking out information about sex and have access to huge amounts of sexualised imagery through the internet, entertainment and friends, but their access to accurate information about their contraceptive options, skills about relationship building or access to youth friendly services is far more limited.
The reasons for teenage pregnancy are complex and linked to a range of societal issues, principally health inequalities. There are nonetheless a range of interventions that can be implemented to alleviate the high rate of teenage pregnancy we currently witness in Britain. These include two important components: access to universal, comprehensive sex and relationships education and youth friendly services.
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One of the greatest failures of successive governments has been not making sex and relationships education a compulsory component of the school curriculum - something that was on the brink of being rectified earlier this year in the education bill, but abandoned at the last minute ahead of the general election. The UK remains one of the few European countries that does not have statutory sex and relationships education. In countries where sex and relationships education is a compulsory part of the curriculum, the teenage pregnancy rate is significantly lower. But the evidence is more scientific than that. Quality independent research from the United States very clearly reveals that where sex and relationships education is taught in schools in conjunction with accurate information about all contraceptive options, young people are more likely to delay their first sexual intercourse, use contraception and are less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection. To put it into perspective: 25.3 in every 1,000 teenage women give birth in the UK each year, five times that of the Netherlands and more than double Germany. In Germany, sex and relationships education is central to the curriculum and has been compulsory in schools for almost 20 years. In the Netherlands, there is much greater community and cultural focus on sex and relationships education and teaching relationships values, and contraception information is something that starts in the home and in primary schools.
We are eagerly awaiting the coalition government’s strategy on addressing teenage pregnancy and hope to see it on the agenda at the Tory Party conference. To date, the government’s comments have suggested a hands off strategy, to allow parents to talk at home about sex and to allow schools to decide what they will teach. We know this strategy doesn’t work in actually ensuring all young people are empowered to make informed choices. A willingness of parents to talk to their children before they become sexually active and youth friendly sexual health services are certainly part of the solution. However, many parents find it difficult to talk to their children about sex and relationships before their child becomes sexually active. I myself have lost count of the number of times my husband has told our children to “go talk to your mother” when a sex question is raised. It is also unreasonable to expect parents to have all the latest information about contraception and STIs as well as being communication experts about teenage romantic relationships. This is where schools can step in. However, without making it compulsory, sex and relationships education is likely to be at the bottom of the heap or not feature at all in some schools. One in three schools in Britain is a faith school and many of them do not teach more than the required biology of reproduction. State-run schools, struggling with budget cuts, are focused on meeting their compulsory curriculum and teachers often find sex and relationships education an embarrassing class to teach, highlighting a need for specialist training.
As I visit Marie Stopes International’s unplanned pregnancy clinics it is evident that many of the women there haven’t had access to proper education and information to prevent their unplanned pregnancy. They have been let down by the lack of action by successive governments in addressing Britain’s teenage pregnancy problem. I’d like to think that this government has the courage to step up and ensure our daughters and sons stop becoming statistics and can aspire to achieving their dreams that may include education, career and then children later in life.
About Marie Stopes International
Marie Stopes International is Britain’s leading independent sexual and reproductive health provider, delivering services to more than 100,000 clients across nine centres each year. We are an outcomes driven health service provider, delivering clinical excellence. Marie Stopes is a not-for-profit organisation working to ensure that men and women can plan their family and have the information, tools and treatments to protect themselves against unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Internationally, we deliver family planning and sexual healthcare to more than six million people each year in 43 countries. For more information, please visit our website mariestopes.org.uk