Violated and vulnerable;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Campaigning against abuseand exploitation must be a priority for sex education classes, says Sarah Nelson

THE Royal College of Nursing (normally seen as august and staid) caused a right stooshie when delegates at its annual conference suggested school nurses should be able to prescribe contraceptives to schoolgirls as young as 11. There were predictable outcries from right-wing family organisations, which forcefully demanded school nurses stick to grazed knees.

That the debate should polarise thus - liberals versus the Gillick Tendency, contraceptives versus "just say no" - is unfortunate and damaging. Other important issues, especially protection against abuse and exploitation, are forgotten. But they must become integral to any discussion about young people's sexual behaviour, within and beyond the education system.

Education that gives young people full, accurate information - not just about contraception, but about the reality of life as a teenager bringing up a young baby - is vital. Many Scottish teachers and youth workers will also find themselves agreeing with the general point that active, practical steps to bring contraception to vulnerable young people under 16 is one necessary part of reducing teenage pregnancies. But neither of these is enough.

It's important to start by avoiding alarmist generalisations. This had led to the demonisation by politicians and media of young single mothers - with new pressures in England to have their babies adopted - even though unmarried teenagers are only about 3 per cent of all lone parents.

Yes, Britain has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in western Europe. But in the whole of Scotland in 1997, from a population of five million, there were 827 known pregnancies, and 304 known abortions, to girls under 16. Among 16-year-olds, there were 1,524 known pregnancies and an estimated 700-800 abortions. We are talking, then, about a few thousand of Scotland's most vulnerable young women - not vast hordes of sex-crazed, couldn't-care-less "gymslip mums".

Because they are a vulnerable minority, they also deserve extra care, time and attention. Yet as pupils they may be the least likely to receive those things if they are seen as difficult, promiscuous, low-achieving, aggressive rebels, persistent truants, unresponsive day-dreamers, or frightened souls who hide at the back of the class.

Some of these phases are perfectly normal for many young people. But they can also be common forms of behavioural reaction to sexual abuse - especially if accompanied by a sudden "nosedive" in school achievement.

Pregnancy may well be the result of abuse by a relative, stepfather, family friend or youth leader. It is a powerful indicator. The possibility should always be considered in the under-15s, especially if they have previously shown abnormal behaviour.

Abusers will always claim it was some known or unknown boyfriend. Far too many adults swallow this tale whole, especially if the girl has a "promiscuous" reputation, or if her abusive family is respectably middle class. Just because today's young people are experimenting with sex earlier adults shouldn't blithely assume early pregnancies are the result of consenting but careless relationships. They should also keep alert to the possibility of abuse.

Women's support organisations come across numerous young women who became pregnant through abuse at this age - yet no one had asked them the right question. In that respect the education system is still failing. Sometimes it has to be a bit curious, a bit suspicious, to get young people the basic care they need.

Abused young people face many threats and inhibitions to keep them from telling the truth. They need encouragement to take that extra step and to seek help discreetly. Leaflets that actually name the problem of abuse, and give contact numbers of helping agencies, should be widely available in secondary schools, and pinned to noticeboards. Teachers who have a trusting relationship with pregnant teenagers could make a special point of telling them that if anything is worrying them they will always be available to listen.

Abusive behaviour can also come from teenage peers. Sadly, victimised girls and boys are at particular risk of being victimised again by other adults and teenagers. This increases the importance of ensuring that every programme of sex education or moral education explicitly discourages the sexual exploitation of others.

Sarah Nelson is a researcher and writer on child and welfare issues.

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