The Guides used to be about knots and singing around the campfire. But, as Elaine Williams finds out, a scheme to teach girls about the consequences of teenage pregnancy is bringing the association into the 21st century
Jemma has rings under her eyes as dark as Rebecca is pale. She looks down at the bundle in her arms, responsible for her sleepless nights. "I wanted to kill him," she says. Rebecca hands over her own infant with enormous relief, and lays her head on her arms. She could sleep for England.
These two 15-year-olds, both Ranger Guides, have staggered back into the Cumbrian farmhouse kitchen of Susan Aglionby, their district commissioner who lives near Carlisle, late on a Sunday afternoon, bearing the babies they have cared for over the past 48 hours. Rebecca Rawlings's "Bethany Jane" and Jemma Stobart's "Matthew" are dolls, but uncannily realistic dolls with floppy heads, the average weight of a six-week-old infant and a computer in the back programmed to emit a real baby's recorded cry as well as record any incident of neglect, rough handling or improper head support.
The two Guides had already spent a weekend with these offspring on "normal" mode, but this time the dolls were set to "cranky". The only way to stop them crying was to insert a key into their back and leave it there until they stopped. As Jemma Stobart and Rebecca Rawlings had the key locked on to their wrists they had no choice but to discharge their duties or to have their acts of negligence - or worse - recorded.
Both girls enjoyed the novelty of having "babies" to care for the first time round, but sleepless nights induced by cranky infants this second time has reduced them to emotional and physical exhaustion. "The first night she'd been crying for an hour before I woke and then I daren't go back to sleep again for the rest of the night in case she cried," says Rebecca. "The second night I slept through everything until six o'clock in the morning, by which time my sister was also awake. Mum was shouting at me to go back to sleep. I was not popular."
Jemma was woken every hour. "I woke up and found myself covering the baby's face," she says. "I must have fallen asleep while I was holding it in the night. I felt so awful. I would still like a child but when I am much older." Rebecca contemplates her busy life - singing in two choirs, helping out with Brownies, completing GCSE coursework, helping her mum at the Red Cross - and realises how impossible it would be to maintain her interests if she feels as tired as she does now and with no prospect of shedding the responsibility of a child.
The Borders and Carlisle division of the Guides Association is the first in the country to take delivery of the two virtual babies as part of a scheme that aims to discourage teenage pregnancy.
Learning about the trials and tribulations of young motherhood seems a far cry from the Guides' traditional image of girls learning to tie a thousand different knots and singing songs around a camp fire. If you didn't have a string of badges stitched down your sleeve you could have felt depressingly inadequate. But the Guides Association has changed, particularly over the past decade. The emphasis has always been on self-development and taking responsibility, but the association has evolved, not only in the uniform it wears (a leisure range designed by Jeff Banks, with jeans permitted), but also in the extent to which it takes account of contemporary issues facing young women.
The Guides Association is the largest women's organisation in the world with 9 million members, and it is the largest youth organisation in the UK. These days issues such as environmental awareness have replaced the preoccupation with knots and survival strategies, though they still go out and build camps from nothing. For example, the Guides have joined an environmentl challenge which aims to save a million aluminium cans, plant a million trees and "save" a million kilograms of carbon dioxide by the end of 2000. They have teamed up with the Body Shop in a "Girls Get Real" promotion - an activity and discussion pack for Guides tackling female self-esteem and self-confidence.
Susan Aglionby, who has worked with the association for more than 30 years, much of that time in inner London, now runs a smallholding, having moved north with her lawyer husband 11 years ago. But she is also a trained nurse and works part-time for the Family Planning Association in Carlisle. She says her shock at the number of under-age pregnancies in Cumbria prompted her to initiate the scheme to buy the virtual babies, which cost more than pound;200 each; funding for them has come from the Cumbria Youth Alliance.
"I think we have a duty to tackle issues like this," she says. "We encourage these girls to play a full part in society, to take charge of their own future and this is all part of the process."
The girls themselves believe the project is money well spent and an effective deterrent to taking risks in sexual relationships. A group of them gathered to support Jemma and Rebecca when they brought their "cranky" babies back to Mrs Aglionby and to talk about their own experiences.
Helen Clark, 18, will never forget the weekend she had "Jack", who despite being programmed for "normal" mode cried every 15 minutes or so for the whole weekend. After a few hours, she ducked out and hired a "nanny", Rachel Goodfellow, 15, her younger sister's friend. Rachel looked after him for the first night, but by the time the second night came around, Helen was desperate. "I was revising for my A-level modular exams and kept having to stop every 15 minutes," she says. "It was an absolute nightmare. In the end I got so sick of Jack crying that I left him in the kitchen all night. Before we were given the babies, we discussed shaking baby syndrome and I didn't understand how anybody could do that to a child. But after having Jack I was so tired and so frustrated I could perfectly understand how it happens."
Helen's sister Sarah, 15, also took a baby for the weekend. She says the experience has made her realise how hard it is for young mothers with real babies who have to feed, change and bathe their baby, wash their clothes and lug pushchairs around.
Hannah Shepherd, 14, says it also brought home to her how judgmental and disapproving other members of the public can be. "I took my baby with me when I went to a restaurant with my family," she says. "I was sick of the baby crying all the time and I didn't want to hold the cot, so I put it under the table with a blanket over the baby's head. The waiter kept giving me funny looks, I think he thought I was abusing the child. Eventually I took it out and held it and I could see this woman on another table pointing at me and obviously telling her own daughter not to get into the same fix. It made me feel terrible."
Friends Laura Gifford and Rebecca Wardlaw, both 14, travelled 30 miles from their villages to take charge of their babies from Mrs Aglionby, but found themselves in a tricky situation when they were stopped by the police while shopping. They were visiting the Metro Centre in Gateshead, and Laura was pushing her virtual offspring in a pram. "The police were very suspicious of us because they told us that teenage girls often take babies into the centre and use their prams to hide stolen goods," she says. "We had to explain to them about our whole project. It was really embarrassing."
But bringing home the consequences of teenage sex to girls is only half the battle, according to Sarah Clark. "I think the Venture Scouts should have a go," she says.
The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has a website at: www.wagggsworld.org