These teenage mums were once the girls that society shunned. Now, they are taking control of their lives and forging a new future, writes Michael Sheather.
Bethany Zasi was just 15 when she found out she was pregnant. She was just a day older when her boyfriend denied the child was his and said goodbye. She didn't plan to be a mother so young. And she didn't plan to lose touch with her future.
"Falling pregnant changed everything," says Bethany, now 18 and mother to a beautiful 20-month-old toddler, Tiarna. "I was always the one my family thought would one day head off to university. But having a baby meant I couldn't stay at school. It was just too hard.
"People would call out when I walked past, they whispered behind my back and sometimes they'd call me names, nasty names. They made me feel like such a disappointment. But the worst thing was that people thought it was okay to judge me.
"They didn't know me or anything about me, but they were happy to judge me for the fact I was pregnant. But that's okay. I'm going to prove them wrong. I still want to go to university and I'll get there in the end."
Bethany is one of a small band of 12 teenage mums from Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs who are taking responsibility for their futures in Aim'n High, a groundbreaking program designed to bring teenage mums back to school, finish their education and avoid the crushing cycle of welfare dependency.
The program, developed by Mission Australia and run in conjunction with a local secondary college, is a unique combination of classroom and childcare, with the young mums splitting their time between a home room at Mission Australia's early learning centre in Doveton and formal lessons at nearby Hallam Senior Secondary College.
While the mothers are in class or doing their homework, their children are cared for in the centre. "The program gives the girls time to focus and concentrate on their lessons while their children get quality childcare," says Mission Australia's Stuart McGougan, who began the project three years ago after hearing about a similar successful program at Plumpton High School in Sydney.
"We're creating a place where the girls can do their work and not also have to deal with the stress of being a mother with a young child. They have the support of others who know what they are going through as well."
The program was set up in response to the large numbers of teenage girls leaving school after becoming pregnant — last year, 107 teenage mums left school in this area of Melbourne and 12,000 teenage girls become mothers annually Australia-wide.
"The evidence is that a teenage mum who leaves school at 15 to have a baby is unlikely to finish her education because it's simply too hard being a mum and a student at that age," says Stuart.
"And without an education, it's likely that those young mums will become welfare dependent. We believe that getting the girls back to school will give them a better life, both for themselves and their children."
Read more of this story in the January issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
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