Aboriginal Mothers in Winnipeg

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Reseach looks at attitudes and understanding around sex and motherhood

Aboriginal teenagers are four times more likely than non-Aboriginal teens to have babies. According to data cited in the report Young Aboriginal Mothers in Winnipeg, published in May 2009 by the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE), more than one in five First Nations babies were born to mothers aged 15 to 19 years in 1999.

By comparison, the Canadian ratio was one in 20. Aside from the economic hardships that many young mothers face, there are increased health risks for babies born to teens. Researchers contend that there are socio-cultural issues at play that have not been thoroughly investigated.

In order to uncover the issues that feed this trend, PWHCE researcher Lisa Murdock conducted interviews and group sessions with 28 women living in Winnipeg, mostly between the ages of 18 and 27 years old. She ventured to find out why girls from First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations are more likely than non-Aboriginals to become mothers at a young age, and support young mothers by asking women to tell her in their own words about their experiences.

Themes included the women’s knowledge of sex before they became pregnant, their feelings about intimacy, where they learned about pregnancy and STIs (if they did), the support they received while pregnant and the challenges of young parenthood. There was significant focus on the kinds of programs that women would have accessed had they been available, and recommendations for future programming.

Compelling in Murdock’s report is the first-person reporting from the women she interviewed, which illuminates the issues. The women in the project had lived experiences to share and insight that went beyond the telling of personal narratives.

Murdock quotes an interviewee discussing teen pregnancy within the context of the oppression of Aboriginal peoples, and the breakdown of their family structure.

“I think it goes back to a lot of different things. It goes back to dysfunctional homes, childhood sexual abuse, alcoholism, everything. It just comes down to it. When you get such abuse, a high percentage of the time you end up working the streets or you end up sleeping around, you end up having kids at young ages … You can’t just stop and tell kids they can’t get pregnant at a young age. It’s not good. You gotta work on the things that happened to them too … What’s making them become like that? It doesn’t mean all people are being sexually abused, but a high percentage of the people live in dysfunctional homes, and just want to feel loved and decide to have a baby at a young age. It becomes then, part of the system.”

Murdock notes that women mentioned the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal beliefs around abortion and adoption as another reason for the high rates of teen pregnancy among Aboriginal women. Says another interviewee:

“There’s a lot of girls out there who just want a baby. Even so young, they want to have a baby so they can have something to love, for someone to love them.”

While the women interviewed said they were happy with the children they had, most said they thought young teens were not equipped to be having babies. They suggested prevention strategies including sex education starting in elementary school, presentations in high schools from young parents talking about their challenges, and better support programs for young parents. They stress that communication within families and between girls and people in their communities is the key to prevention.

“I’d say prevention first. Like, the whole talking to the guardian, like the parents and the guardian thing. Like teaching them how to talk to their kids, that’d be good. And a class how to talk to your parents might even help too because kids are really cocky these days. They’re trying to be independent, but that’s not the case. I think that would help. A class on how to connect with each other would be good.”

The report, Young Aboriginal Mothers in Winnipeg, is available on the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence website at www.pwhce.ca/youngAborigMothersMurdock.htm

Jane Shulman is the Director of Knowledge Exchange at the Canadian Women’s Health Network.