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November 18, 2013

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A social worker’s battle against teen pregnancies

Wang Handong, 45, remembers back two years when she was alerted to the plight of a 17-year-old girl who fell pregnant by a fellow student, concealed her pregnancy from her parents and gave birth to a stillborn child at home. The girl disposed of the infant’s body in a neighborhood garbage bin.

The unwed teenager came from a poor family. Her mother suffered from epilepsy and her father was a mahjong addict. They paid their daughter scant attention.

“When I entered the one-room apartment after being alerted by the neighborhood committee, I saw the girl’s clothes and her bed sheets soaked in blood,” said Wang. “She couldn’t utter a word and merely sat there sobbing.”

Such heartbreaking stories are nothing new for Wang. She is a social worker at the Baoshan branch of the Shanghai Sunshine Community-Youth Affairs Center. Her focus is on teenage pregnancies, a growing social problem across China.

A survey of more than 80,000 university students in seven cities at the end of last year revealed that 14.4 percent admitted to having pre-marital sex and more than 25 percent of students said they had experienced an unwanted pregnancy.

In Shanghai, a local hotline for women with unwanted pregnancies has received over 43,000 calls and offered help to some 4,800 young women since it was established in 2005. It is now handling about 40,000 calls and arranging abortions for thousands of young women every year.

“They are often so helpless and alone, and they need support,” Wang said of unwed teenage mothers. “They often haven’t received any sex education and know nothing about contraception.”

Wang resigned her job in a medical company about nine years ago and became one of the first group of qualified social workers in the city. She encountered her first teenage pregnancy case in 2008.

The girl in that case finally had an abortion with Wang’s help. Today she’s in a job and in a stable relationship with her boyfriend, Wang said.

She also recalled two cases where colleagues helped unwed teenagers by getting parental approval for them to carry their babies to term. The mothers and fathers of the babies, in both cases, wed when they reached the legal age of 20.

The case of the 17-year-old who dumped her stillborn child in a garbage can was a particularly tough one for Wang. The baby’s corpse was found by neighbors, who identified the family and called the center.

The girl, whose name cannot be made public, was a loner. Her only contact with the outside world was a computer. She said the baby was fathered by another student, who abandoned her when his money ran out. When she returned from a brief stay in hospital, Wang went to see her at home but was refused entry.

“I phoned her and said there were donations of money and gifts for her in my office,” Wang said. “When she arrived, she was thin and pale, wrapped in a big overcoat. Her face was heavily made up."

The girl was reticent to talk at first, but Wang’s gentle nature and sparkling, warm smile soon broke down the barriers.

“She is an independent girl who lacked loving support, either from her family or society,” Wang said. “She wasn’t even looking after her own health.”

But not all end that way. Last month, a 19-year-old mother was sentenced to five years in jail after throwing her newborn infant from the 12th floor of a building. Ten days later, a 22-year-old single mother strangled her newborn son. She has been charged with murder by prosecutors.

Wang and her colleagues are trying to head off such tragedies.

At the Baoshan youth center, she has organized sex education classes for women aged from 16 to 25 — targeting those who aren’t in public schools or jobs. The classes discuss subjects such as AIDS, use of condoms and how to avoid rape. Staff also take their courses out into the community.

During the recent summer holiday, more than 400 minors called the pregnancy hotline operated by the Shanghai No. 441 Hospital of the People’s Liberation Army — a 10 percent increase from a year earlier.

Hotline staff said calls from unwed pregnant teenagers have risen from 30 percent in 2010 to 50 percent today. About 40 percent of the callers admit to thoughts of suicide. More worrying, some calls come from girls only 12 or 13 years old.

“It may be the lack of sex education in schools or parental negligence,” Wang said of the rising numbers.

“There is no platform for them to discuss sex problems at school. I think both boys and girls need sex education.”



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