I speak tonight about a small, but special, group of parents. They are a special group of Mums and Dads because of their age. They are young parents, teenagers in fact, some as young as 14 and 15.
The reason I speak in praise of these young Mums and Dads is not just because they have made the courageous decision to have their children and embark on the toughest job of all, raising kids, but because they have also made the decision to continue their schooling.
I also admire these parents because they have other issues to contend with; which makes their lot in life even harder.
A lot of them are single parents, a lot of them lack family support and, sadly, a lot of them are scorned by a society which, for some reason, judges them to be incapable of properly looking after their children.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking at the launch of the Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network (AYPPN) at Canberra College.
Canberra College has an impressive story to tell; four young Mums at the school in 2004 to about 100 today, including some Dads, and up to 15 indigenous students.
The young parents bring their children to school, there is a nurses clinic on site and, every morning, three school buses drive around Canberra collecting mums and bubs from their homes.
As I said in my speech yesterday, these young mothers are champions.
And schools like Canberra College, and Corio Bay Senior College in Victoria, where one young mum was school captain a few years ago, are champions as well.
They are education, community and workplace champions.
To illustrate the need for, and the success of, these programs, may I share with the Senate the story of 18-year-old Stevie-Lea Pedemont, mother to two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Charlie.
A single mother, Stevie-Lea says she lost most of her friends when she became pregnant during Year 10. But, thanks to the support and encouragement of the CCCares program at Canberra College, this remarkable young woman has turned her life around.
Ms Pedemont will graduate from Year 12 in one month, she will start architecture at the University of Canberra next year and she is already working two days a week with an architectural firm; the job offer following a work experience placement.
The future looks bright for this Quenbeyan teenager, and it looks bright for her precious daughter as well.
As a community, I believe we need to rethink how we treat young mothers.
It is interesting that, on the one hand, we have increasing numbers of middle aged women who regret they did not try to have children sooner, and yet, on the other hand, we demonise and chastise young women because they become pregnant and decide to keep their babies.
As I said earlier, these young women have the toughest job of all, raising children, but it is even harder for them because society punishes them, whether it be through scornful looks, abusive remarks or simply shutting them off.
Why do we scorn and discriminate against young women for having children and for trying to do the best they can for themselves and their families?
We need to support and nurture young parents to overcome barriers to achieve better educational, health and employment outcomes which will clearly provide a better life for their children.
That is not to say that the Federal Government is not concerned about the rate of teenage pregnancies and wants it to decrease, because of course we do.
But we are talking about one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and, for that reason, they deserve as much support and encouragement as we can give them, not to be abandoned to a life on welfare, a life of social isolation and entrenched disadvantage.
That would be the absolute worst outcome, for mother and child. And for our society.
What the Gillard Labor Government is about is giving young women choices; choices they might otherwise feel they do not have. And that is what the schools that run these important programs provide.
I was interested to learn from Jan Marshall that Canberra College has some mothers returning to school just two days after leaving hospital with their newborns, sadly because they feel they have no other place to go.
To use the jargon, Canberra College has demonstrated what being a good corporate citizen is all about.
Without relying on government, this school identified a community need and rather than say ‘it’s too hard, it’s not my problem”, they made it their problem and found a solution.
That is the sort of community minded attitude that needs to be encouraged.
I also acknowledge and applaud the many and varied partnerships that the school has established with government, with academia, and with the community and corporate sector.
I congratulate the Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network for its launch yesterday and I note that one of its aims is to raise community awareness, and stimulate public debate, about the needs of young pregnant women and mothers.
I look forward to playing my part to start the process of changing community attitudes so that young mothers and fathers are not ostracised but are embraced as valued members of our community, and their children too and, in this case particularly, maintained within their education community.