The unfortunate and untimely death of baby Roselana a few days ago shocked the nation and sparked not only reactions of pity and sadness but also the inevitable debates about young parenthood, undeclared fatherhood and taxpayers’ money, welfare dependence and abuse, sexual morality and the lot.

The fact that the parents hailed from Cottonera and that the father had had another baby with another teenage girl with whom he was living at the time of Roselana’s death added more spice to the tragic story. It also tended to reinforce the stereotype of an irresponsible young couple who just wanted to have a bit of fun, without caring about the consequences of their actions knowing that the State will come to their rescue in the form of social welfare.

The image of the child mother who may have wanted to have a baby to enhance her social status or because she needed a toy or a love object was also projected.

While Malta appears to be following the European trend of postponing parenthood to the late 20s, it still has a relatively high rate of teenage births compared to other European countries. Although Malta’s southern harbour region has a concentration of single parents living on welfare, teenage parents come from all walks of life and their stories are not all the same. Neither are the factors underlying their predicament similar and, in many cases, both agency and structure are at play.

Therefore, before pointing fingers exclusively at these teenagers and their family background or their welfare-sucking tendencies, we should raise a number of questions such as what has happened to the sexual health policy launched in 2010? Are our teenagers seriously being informed about sexual matters including how to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies in more effective ways than by using crash helmets? Are teenagers in schools being adequately prepared to deal with their sexuality and with the possible consequences of unsafe and irresponsible sexual activity?

Sexual health policies, which broaden their scope beyond promoting sexual abstinence, are usually more successful in preventing early pregnancies.

Are our school administrators trained to deal with pregnant schoolgirls effectively or are they more concerned with avoiding a scandal and with encouraging the girl to leave mainstream education and start attending Unit Għożża which, while providing a sterling service, does not provide academic education to schoolgirl mothers, thus further jeopardising their educational opportunities?

And if the case may be that a teenage girl wanted to get pregnant for reasons such as lack of love, social status or future prospects, shouldn’t we, as taxpayers, also be asking why the system is in many ways failing these girls to the extent that early motherhood and living on welfare becomes their ultimate goals in life? Because while everyone has priorities and goals and education and career may not be the desired aims of every schoolgirl, it is an undeniable fact that education does provide a wider range of options in life and a possible way out of poverty that is significantly high among single parents. Educational success is strikingly low in the southern harbour region and this cannot all possibly be attributed to lack of ability or cultural and family background.

What about the fathers? Over the years, the percentage of fathers declared as unknown has decreased although around one third of births outside wedlock are still registered solely under the mother’s name.

While one cannot exclude motivations of welfare abuse, the situation is much more complex. In certain cases, although the mother would know the father’s identity, he would refuse to acknowledge fatherhood or he may be married and reluctant to divulge his identity.

Mothers may also decide not to provide the name of the father in cases of violent or abusive men or when they would know that declaring the father’s name would give the father certain rights without him taking any of the responsibilities that fatherhood entails, leaving the young mother to face the music on her own while he seeks fresh pastures.

In a macho culture, where the mother and her female kin are still considered to be the natural carers of children, it is even more difficult for fathers to perceive themselves as more than breadwinners even within a marriage context. Their perceived responsibilities are likely to diminish even further when they father a child within a casual or short-term relationship. After all, fatherhood is much more than writing down one’s name on a birth certificate.

However, it would be unfair to state that all ‘unknown’ fathers consciously or freely shirk their responsibilities because there are also cases where the mother or her family would forbid the father from having any contact with his child despite his good intentions.

Fathers also tend to find it more difficult to access suitable support services. One must acknowledge that there are many fathers who take their new challenges very seriously.

The issues surrounding teenage parenthood are complex and with no easy solutions. However, a combination of well-designed policies promoting sexual health and responsible sexual practices, policies that encourage and enable young single parents to actively engage in education, training or work to improve their quality of life and reduce welfare dependency, policies that encourage both boys and girls to view their future parenting role as shared rather than gender-specific, will certainly make a difference.

Angele Deguara is Alternattiva Demokratika spokeswoman for social policy and civil rights.

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