AYPPN Submission to the Human Rights Commission, 2013
Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review
The Australian Young, Pregnant and Parenting Network (AYPPN) was formed to support pregnant and parenting young people to create the best possible start for themselves and their children. A network of agencies working with pregnant and parenting young people around Australia, AYPPN has a strong commitment to fostering access to quality health care, education, training, employment, adequate income support and housing as the fundamental building blocks of physical, emotional, social and economic well-being for pregnant and parenting young people and their children.
Although many pregnant and parenting young women are not in the workforce at the time of their pregnancy or in the year/s immediately following the birth of their children, issues impacting on them, including in particular, access to education, childcare and safe affordable housing, often work to minimize their entry into the workforce at all.
Australia’s teenage birth rate has fallen steadily since the 1960s and compares relatively well to both the UK and the USA.
• In Australia in 2012, 16.1 live births per 1000 (a total number of 11, 420) were recorded for women aged 19 and under.
• In the UK in the same year the birthrate was 19.9 per 1000 for the same age group.
• In the US, the 2012 birthrate for the age group was 29.4 per 1,000.
However, when compared to other advanced economies in Europe and Asia, the situation in Australia appears less deserving of celebration. In France and Japan in 2012, the rate was 6 per thousand; in Denmark, 5 per 1,000; and in the Netherlands, less than 5 per 1,000.
In addition, teenagers from already socio-economically disadvantaged circumstances are far more likely to continue their pregnancies than those from more privileged backgrounds, so that teenage parenting often has a multiplier effect on disadvantage.
There are also quite significant differences between teenage birth rates in various states and territories, which correspond in part with degrees of urbanisation, socio-economic profiles, and levels of remoteness in different parts of the country.
There are significantly higher birth rates for teenagers living in remote areas, most likely reflecting differences in access to both contraception and termination services. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young women, especially those in remote communities, have the highest rate of teenage births in Australia. In 2007, 4% of all babies in Australia were born to teenage mothers, while 19% of all Indigenous babies in Australia were born to teenage mothers.
Programs to support young women are limited in Australia, and especially so for those living outside major metropolitan areas. Young mothers are far more likely to experience discrimination in relation to the resumption or completion of basic education that in seeking or maintaining employment, according to the bulk of anecdotal evidence from AYPPN member organisations. This is often due to young mothers having disengaged from education prior to school completion, or having had poor outcomes from schooling, often linked to existing disadvantage.
As a consequence, recommencing education in order to acquire the qualifications necessary for employment can be daunting. Despite the fact that the teen birth rate in Australia remains relatively high, there is no systematic approach to the provision of education support tailored to the needs of young mothers, nor more than a handful of dedicated programs around the country.
Although discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or parental status is made illegal by both state and federal legislation, many pregnant and parenting young people and their families remain unaware of their rights to continue or resume their educations. Despite a flurry of activity in the 1990s in relation to pregnancy, parenting and school completion, it is now very difficult to find information on the rights of pregnant and parenting young people to access education on the website of any state education department.
AYPPN and its member organisations are aware of ongoing indirect discrimination against young women by virtue of this policy silence, as well as of direct (if often discreetly managed) discrimination by school and system leaders, whereby enrolments are cancelled without recourse to departmental procedures, young women and their families are left in ignorance of their rights, and subtle messages are given that the pregnant or parenting student is not “suitable” for the school, or “unlikely to succeed”.
In a fairly typical example of a case brought to the attention of AYPPN two years ago, a parenting 15 year old student in a public high school in one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities in Brisbane, was told by the principal upon her return to school following her baby’s illness that her absences meant she was no longer eligible to be at school, and that her enrolment had been cancelled. On the recommendation of a third party, assistance was sought from AYPPN, and a complaint was made to the Queensland ADC. The case was finally heard by the Commission which found in her favour, but by then her absence from school had been prolonged by many months and the degree of rancour and tension between the principal, the student and her family was such that she decided not to return.
Most common is the failure of the school or educational institution to make reasonable provision for students who clearly have special needs given the multiple demands on their time and resources. The handful of programs around Australia that do offer tailored programs with inbuilt flexibility and support serve to highlight the level of neglect that surrounds this group of young women more generally. Without education, something may young parents come to value highly because of their new responsibilities, regardless of their previous educational experiences, the path to employment and economic independence and well-being for themselves and their children is limited.
Neither education nor employment is a possibility for most young parent without access to quality affordable childcare. Under current arrangements, many young parents find that by the time they have completed schooling, their childcare allocation has been used up, leaving them without affordable options for tertiary study. This has been an ongoing problem, and one in need of urgent attention.
In relation to housing, many young mothers find themselves without support from either the child’s father or their own family and friends, and often face the prospect of having no adequate accommodation. Homelessness amongst young parents is not uncommon; and though public housing may be available, it is often in marginalized areas of towns and cities which reduce access to services such as education, training and employment, and exacerbate the risks of social isolation.
The failure of successive governments to consider a whole of government approach to recognising the special needs of young parents and their children and providing a comprehensive range of supports to them, has contributed to a situation where the majority of the country’s young parents struggle – and often fail – to escape the cycle of poverty, poor education and lack of job skills, and in the process, open the door to a similar future for their own children.
The recommendations below are drawn from the publication “What it Takes: Supporting Pregnant and Parenting Young People” produced by the Association of Women Educators, an affiliate of AYPPN, and are endorsed by AYPPN as part of our submission to this review. The full report is available at: http://www.awe.asn.au/drupal/sites/default/files/what_it_takes.pdf
Recommendations are organised around three focus areas:
1. A national approach to improving outcomes for pregnant and parenting young people.
2. A national strategy to reduce teenage pregnancy and the teenage birth-rate
3. A national approach to supporting young parents and their children.
Recommended strategies are underpinned by the following principles:
• They are consistent with the commitments of Australian governments to meet the requirements of Anti Discrimination legislation, and obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
• They address both preventative and responsive action.
• They respond to the diversity of culture, language, socio-economic status, and geographic location of pregnant and parenting young people and their children.
1. A national approach
1.1. A national approach to reducing the incidence of unintended teenage pregnancy, and to improving outcomes for pregnant and parenting young people and their children, should be developed as a matter of urgency through the mechanism provided by COAG.
1.2. Such an approach should evidence-based, and supported by a sound research agenda which includes longitudinal studies to determine effective practice amongst diverse groups of young people, and which enables both national and localised strategies and appropriate targets to be developed.
1.3. It should be underpinned by an understanding of the complex factors, reflecting the experiences of young people over the course of their lives, involved in the sexual behaviours and pregnancy-resolution decisions of young people. It should demonstrate respect for the decisions they make about their lives, and ensure that the fact of parenthood at an early age does not result in long-term exclusion from education, employment and social connectedness; nor place the children of young parents at risk of long-term negative consequences.
1.4. It should commit to providing wider and more consistent support for young parents and their children while also responding to the demands of equity in the provision of services for diverse groups of young people in different parts of the country.
1.5. It should adopt a whole-of-government, or “joined-up”, approach, and foster appropriate collaboration not only between government agencies at national, state, and local levels, but also between government agencies and non-government organisations.
1.6. Such an approach should specify responsibilities at all levels of implementation, and be monitored carefully over a significant period of time, with annual reporting to both government/s and the general public.
2. A national strategy to reduce teenage pregnancy and the teenage birth-rate
2.1. Develop and implement a long-term proactive strategy to reduce the teenage birth-rate. Such a strategy should be part of a whole of government effort to reduce inequalities in the lives of families, thereby addressing the factors which predict higher rates of teenage motherhood amongst particular social groups. It should include a specific focus on:
• improving girls’ experience of and attitudes to schooling in the pre-adolescent years; and
• providing ‘life option’ programmes for adolescents who may be disengaged from education, to provide alternatives to early parenting.
2.2. The strategy should be accompanied by a comprehensive research and evaluation framework.
• A key element of such a framework should be the development of a method of consistent data collection across jurisdictions in relation to teenage pregnancy terminations.
• It should support further research to better understand teenagers’ decision-making process in relation to the resolution of unintended pregnancy, and their experiences of termination.
• Given the higher health risks associated with teenage pregnancy and birth in under 15 years olds, current data collection and reporting needs to be modified to provide a clearer picture of the numbers of under 15 conceptions and births, and a more detailed profile of this cohort of young women.
2.3. The strategy should develop, through the national curriculum project, a comprehensive high quality sex and relationships education program, which clearly identifies:
• Its location in the core P-12 curriculum.
• Key learnings for particular age groups.
• Appropriate resources.
• Strategies and resources for the provision of quality teacher training and professional development to ensure quality delivery in the classroom.
2.4. A national sex and relationships curriculum should include a focus on:
• The development of respectful relationships between boys and girls.
• Knowledge about, and skill and confidence in using, contraception.
• Addressing the range of attitudes and values that young people bring with them that shape their motivation to engage in early sexual activity and to use contraception.
• Developing skills in resisting social pressures, identifying the nature of healthy relationships, problem solving and decision-making, negotiation, and assertiveness and communication about sexual activity and the use of contraception.
2.5. Such a curriculum should specifically address Australia’s social, cultural geographic and social-economic diversity in terms of content, teaching and learning strategies, and resources.
2.6. Develop and implement a public education campaign to meet the needs of young people who are not engaged in formal education for accurate information about sex and relationships, and skills in negotiating relationships, sexual engagement and the use of contraception. Such a campaign should be:
• A long term strategy regularly updated and refreshed.
• Designed to meet the needs of diverse groups of young people including those:
• with limited literacy skills;
• whose first language is not English;
• with disabilities; and
• who live in isolated and remote areas.
2.7. Improve access for teenagers to contraception, where possible via high quality youth-specific services.
• Where youth specific services are not available, workers in generalist services, including doctors and nurses in general practice, should be provided with training to ensure that they:
• Provide accurate and unbiased information.
• Treat young people with respect and sensitivity.
3. A national approach to supporting young parents
3.1. Convene a national whole-of-government working party to develop a comprehensive strategy to promote positive outcomes for young parents and their children, and to coordinate joined-up service delivery which responds to the diverse social, cultural, geographic, and economic circumstances of young families.
• Key issues which should be addressed in such a strategy include:
• Reducing long-term welfare dependency and poverty.
• Improving secondary school completion rates and participation in post-school education and training by young parents.
• Improving the emotional health and well-being of young mothers.
• Improving health outcomes for the children of teenage parents.
3.2. It should be accompanied by a national review of service delivery, with a view to identifying areas where service needs are high and supply is low; and where the needs of particular groups are not adequately met. This should include:
• A focus on current funding models with a view to removing the uncertainly under which many services currently operate due to the non-recurrent status of their funding base.
• Greater provision of residential programs for pregnant and parenting young women who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, or who have other high-level needs that require a residential placement.
• A commitment to outreach services to target young parents who would not usually seek assistance from existing services.
• The provision of support to the parents/families of pregnant and parenting young people to assist them to develop the understanding and skills to assist their children and grandchildren.
• Identifying the service needs of young fathers in terms of emotional, social, and educational support.
3.3. Develop a national research partnership to provide an evidence base for the development and evaluation of interventions to improve outcomes for young parents and their children.
• Prioritise research projects which focus on:
• Areas where there is an above average incidence of births to teenage mothers, for example, in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, especially those living in remote areas.
• Filling gaps in knowledge and understanding of the experiences and decision-making of pregnant teenagers, for example in relation to teenagers in culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
• The experiences and needs of young fathers.
3.4. Improving secondary school completion rates and participation in post-school education and training by young parents should be underpinned by an acknowledgement of:
• The prohibitions placed on education authorities, schools and training bodies from discriminating either directly or indirectly in the provision of education services on the basis of pregnancy or parental status.
• The responsibility of schools and training institutions to work proactively to meet the needs of all students through instituting special provisions that are stable over time, and introducing sufficient flexibility in service delivery to respond to the changing demands on student-parents’ time and capacities.
• The need to consider alternative funding arrangements to ensure equitable distribution of high quality support for pregnant and parenting young people in education and training, including the development of differentiated partnerships that respond to the nature of the need at the local level.
• The need to develop specific strategies, including outreach initiatives, to re-connect young parents to education and training.
3.5. Review the proviso of childcare subsidies as they relate to young parents, especially in relation to the limitations of current JET funding to meet the needs of young parents who are completing secondary education and seeking to engage in post-school education and training.
3.6. Support the development of better treatment of pregnant and parenting young people by mainstream health services by developing initiatives such as :
• Training for mainstream health professionals who deal with pregnant teenagers and young parents, to ensure that their experiences of ante-natal services, labour, birth and post-natal care are as positive as possible.
• Developing specialist training for midwives dedicated to working with young mothers, to enhance connections between clients and other health professionals.
• Indentifying and skilling community members who could provide alternative forms of support to highly vulnerable pregnant and parenting young people especially in relation to their dealings with health providers.
3.7. Support the development of confidence and skills in parenting via services and delivery methods that meet the needs of young peoples and are sensitive to their sense of being judged and scrutinised by the adult population, ensuring that such services are available to, and welcoming of, young fathers.
3.8. Develop and implement a public education campaign to address the stigma still attached to teenage pregnancy and parenting, and to reduce the negative public scrutiny to which pregnant and parenting young people feel constantly subjected. Such a campaign should raise awareness of the ways in which local communities can support young parents and their children in the interest of the well-being of individuals and the community as a whole.