Two parents are better than one;Opinion

12th June 1998 at 01:00
My doctor niece, currently working in a remote hospital in Kwa-ZuluNatal, reports that sex with a virgin is still prescribed by some witchdoctors as the cure for Aids (notwithstanding the fact that the same witchdoctors can be seen at the bush hospital with their own ailments). Virgin girls over the age of nine tend to be in short supply, which of course puts smaller girls at appalling risk.

Other countries, other cultures. But it is somewhat startling to read that it is Britain that has the highest rate of teenage illegitimacy in the world (87 per cent) - higher than Andean shanty towns or African bush.

This strikes to the heart of a range of current Government policies. Despite the soothing assurances of the Relate spokeswoman who opined that a high proportion of Britain's teenage mums were "in significant relationships at the time", there remains significant cause for concern.

Yet Government spokespersons have remained surprisingly quiet. Tony Blair's silence is the more curious for a man with a ready homily on most values issues.

Educational and other risks to the next generation, especially to boys growing up without the all-important male role model, lie at the heart of concepts of alienation and underclass.

We know that it is the children of unmarried teenagers who are highly likely to experience multiple disadvantage long before schooldays dawn. They are statistically most likely to become the sharp end of schemes like the New Deal and the latest Scottish Office project, New Futures, aimed specifically at families with third or fourth generation unemployed. The Government has laid out a raft of worthy intentions, but is not yet facing up to the urgent need to break the cycle.

Disadvantaged teenage girls need to hear two clear messages. First, that being a youthful single parent is actually not much fun. A lonely and limiting long-term existence, even social ostracisation, is often the price paid for casual conception on council estates. Plus, of course, grinding poverty, poor social life and no one to share either the happy times or the inevitable moment when the baby chokes at 2am.

Second, vulnerable girls need a mammoth boost to self-confidence and self-esteem, in order to accept that they can do better for their future children and themselves by choosing a stable relationship in a two-parent household. Come to think of it, a third - and seldom articulated - message could usefully be promoted at the same time: sex is an anticlimax when divorced from a decent human relationship.

Perhaps we could learn from the United States and inject a little imaginative role play into relationship education. Parenting classes in Connecticut schools require teenagers of both sexes to live for several days with a lifesize baby model which makes identical demands (hunger, sleeplessness, change of nappies) and requires the same attention day and night as the real thing. (It is said that the ersatz baby's computerised working are tamperproof.) Blairgowrie High pupils in this country have also encountered TOBI, a demanding doll (TESS, May 22). Meanwhile, although the Government gives lip-service to supporting the married family unit, action isn't matching rhetoric. Certainly child support was increased in the recent Budget, but this was tempered by a reduction in the married couple's tax allowance. The Government now proposes to focus on childcare resources for working women, but at the same time is phasing out support for traditional (two-parent) family life.

There is a strong case for our bachelor Chancellor to use positive fiscal measures to give genuine encouragement to married parenthood, and for ministers to address the urgent need for a cross-sectoral strategy to reduce that 87 per cent figure.

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