Boost teen mums' pride, forget the pity
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Boost teen mums' pride, forget the pity

A 17-year-old young mother named 'Beer' and her two-year-old son. She also has another two-year-old daughter and lives in the Ram Intra community in Bangkok. (Photo: Chumporn Sangvilert)
A 17-year-old young mother named 'Beer' and her two-year-old son. She also has another two-year-old daughter and lives in the Ram Intra community in Bangkok. (Photo: Chumporn Sangvilert)

The raw deal, the sexual chagrin. In this week's case, a daughter was molested by a father who even recorded the sexual abuse on his own mobile phone. Yet the news that captured society and media attention was that of a 17-year-old mother named "Nim" -- not her real name, who claimed that her 8-month-old son was kidnapped in Nakhon Pathom province. She subsequently changed her story and told police she accidentally dropped the child, and he died from injuries sustained in the fall.

She panicked and flung the body into the Tha Chin River, about 100 metres away from her husband's home, before fleeing in shock. The police searched for the body without success.

While it is easy to make judgements about Nim's abilities as a mother, the case reflects the failure of public policy to help hundreds of thousands of young mothers, of whom Nim is one, who get pregnant before they are ready to assume a role that will last a lifetime.

Records show that Nim had been molested since she was 15, and it turned out that a friend of her father was the real dad of her dead son, not her 19-year-old boyfriend, who also brought her to sleep with other men in exchange for money.

She is also a victim of the state's failure to follow government policy to keep young mothers in schools. Although there are regulations barring educational institutes from expelling pregnant students, they are often replaced by smiling "invitations" to relieve them of the burden of schoolwork alongside motherhood.

As this month marks International Women's Day, there has been more discussion about how to help young mothers, as the issue of adolescent pregnancy is not new in Thailand. Girls who become pregnant during their school year are often stigmatised and have no option but to continue the pregnancy despite being unprepared to be a mother.

In 2018, Unicef issued a report on adolescent birth rates which have declined globally. Still, they have remained generally stagnant or even increased in Southeast Asia, with wide-ranging variations between countries.

The average adolescent birth rate in the region is 47 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19, higher than the average of 35 in South Asia and close to the global average of 50. The highest adolescent birth rates at the country level are seen in the Lao PDR (94), Cambodia (57), Thailand (50), Indonesia (48) and the Philippines (47).

The next question is: Can we do more to promote this issue in order to reduce the number of adolescent pregnancies in Thailand?

While it is hoped that current government policies, such as the revised Criminal Code that has been effective since last year and the Notification of the Ministry of Public Health that allow women who are between 12- 20 weeks pregnant to have an abortion, will give unprepared young pregnant women more choices to determine their own life, there is much more that could be done.

First, the Ministry of Education and rights groups need to work much harder to raise awareness and education about the legal rights that pregnant women are entitled to have. Few young, pregnant women know they can stay in school, and teachers and schools are wrong to kick them out.

The current approach to the issue in England has seen a 24-hour hotline made available to girls hit by the rush of fear a positive home test brings. They have immediate access to information, refuge and professional guidance while they weigh up their choices: The stigma of abortion, keeping their child or seeing their child adopted and spirited away to what they have to hope is a life better than the one they could have given them. Psychologists are also available to discuss this impenetrable cloud of emotion with each girl.

Thailand's experienced network of NGOs and government agencies must raise awareness not just among young girls but also of miscreant young men who think so lightly about the physical, hormonal and emotional turmoil their demands for pleasure may one day cause. But the country also needs a stronger push from policymakers to elicit change.

Second, the government should consider revising the law and allowing pregnant teenagers more time off both before and after birth to ensure that teenage mothers are cared for as well as their babies.

Third, more sex education and free sexual protection should be provided that is easy to obtain. A lot needs to be done to change the perspectives of society or even families and schools towards teenage mothers. From past to present, teen mums have been stigmatised by their friends, families and passersby. Society and policymakers must reverse their unproductive, biased cultural perceptions.

Thailand may have progressed on many fronts. But the country still lags behind when it comes down to policies to help young, pregnant women. We have much more to do to ensure that every girl who grows up becomes a strong, confident, self-reliant woman with a great future ahead of them.

Despite these young girls getting pregnant, they will be able to decide what to do with their own life, and any decisions they make, they will have social support, and understanding families, schools and friends standing behind them instead.

Natthanicha Lephilibert is Special Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Naresuan University.

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