Key concepts

  • In Australia, as in many parts of the world, Indigenous teenage girls are more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to fall pregnant as teenagers. Teenage parenthood can trigger a life-long cycle of disadvantage, starting with disengagement from school. These outcomes are often intergenerational.
  • Teenage pregnancy can also be viewed as a turning point for young women and an opportunity to funnel greater investment into girls to change the typical outcomes.
  • The Girl Academy School is a unique solution. Unlike other schools, it takes a holistic approach, providing girls with an opportunity to re-engage by living on campus with their child/children, learn how to parent as primary caregivers for their children in a supportive and nurturing environment, learn to live independently (e.g. learning nutrition and self-care), develop work skills through hands-on experience and vocational training, and support each other on their parenting journeys.
  • Holistic, intensive solutions like this are necessary to gain traction and break the cycle of disadvantage.

The challenge: breaking the cycle of disadvantage for teenage mothers

In Australia, as in many parts of the world, Indigenous peoples still experience widespread and systemic disadvantage at greater levels than the non-Indigenous population. This manifests in a variety of ways, including through poorer school and tertiary education attendance and outcomes, lower rates of employment, poorer health (and subsequently, life expectancies of around a decade less), and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system as both victims and offenders1,2.

For young Indigenous girls growing up in this context—particularly in remote Australia—teenage pregnancy is often a result, as well as a cause, of further disadvantage.

Teenagers who disengage from school early are more likely to fall pregnant, and likewise, teenagers who fall pregnant while still at school are more likely to disengage thereafter3. In 2015, teenagers (aged 15–19 years) had 16% of all babies born to Indigenous women, compared with 2.8% of those born to all Australian mothers4. Teenage birth rates are typically higher in regional and remote areas (see Table 1)5 where educational attainment is also generally poorer. For example, in 2016, only 26% of all Indigenous women in one remote region of Queensland (Cape York) had completed Year 12 (versus 54% for non-Indigenous women), while 67% of Indigenous women had only reached Year 11 or below6. In Queensland’s capital city (Brisbane), 54% of Indigenous women had completed Year 12 (while the completion rate was 72% for non-Indigenous women)7. In one sample (N=974) of Indigenous and non-Indigenous pregnant teenage girls in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales, Evans8 found that only 17.4% remained at school to complete Year 12.

Table 1 Birth rates (per 1,000) for 15–19 year old women by Indigenous status and location.

For many reasons, any ‘choice’ made by many young Indigenous women to fall pregnant is often illusory rather than real. Sexual initiation at a younger age, as well as sexual offending involving adult and juvenile perpetrators, is high; many victims are aged under 17 years and female10 This is coupled with a loss of traditional social controls regulating youth sexual behavior as a result of colonialism and the associated disintegration of ancestral traditions and culture

Teenage mothers and their children are often more severely disadvantaged than others in terms of both educational11 and health outcomes12, including due to lifestyle choices during pregnancy13,14. However, the international development literature shows that, through improved investment, this cycle can be halted.

The power of investing in women and girls as a means for social change has been recognised across the globe15-19. For instance, the OECD20 recognised investment in women and girls as a key ingredient in achieving the Millennium Development Goals and women’s empowerment is also a key target under the Sustainable Development Goals21. Directing resources and effective support to adolescent girls and young women—including measures to improve reproductive health and wellbeing—is proven to create positive and substantial flow-on effects. For instance, delaying the age of first pregnancy can substantially and quantifiably increase earnings over a girl’s lifetime22. Thereafter, educated girls are more likely to reinvest back into their families and communities23 whereas men tend to spend their earnings on pursuing other interests. In particular, investing to keep girls in school can result in significant positive outcomes for them and their families24. Although this body of evidence is growing, there are few examples of this sort of investment in Australia to overcome disadvantage for Indigenous women, including Indigenous teenage mothers.

Most existing interventions are narrow in their focus, either targeting the mother’s education (e.g. encouraging mothers to drop their children at crèches on-site at high-schools to complete their studies), solely on providing extra-curricular emotional support (for instance, support networks and groups for young mothers outside of school), or solely upon teaching the young mother positive parenting skills. However, if young mothers are to increase their life chances, they need all three. In Australia, there was a clear need for solutions that could improve outcomes for Indigenous teenage mothers.

The solution: a holistic approach to investing in Indigenous teenage mothers

The Girl Academy’s vision statement—growing up strong in body, mind, culture and spirit—encompasses the holistic nature of the School, which seeks to improve outcomes across students’ lifespans.

The Girl Academy School is a holistic model that offers a second chance to Indigenous teenage mothers. It was developed by and for Indigenous women as a place where teenage mothers can re-engage with and complete their secondary education, but also learn to care for their children and themselves in a nurturing and supportive environment. Indigenous teenage mothers who choose to enrol live on site with their child/children in purpose-built units. The School is located on Wangetti Beach, along a winding road that leads north of Cairns and into the vastness of Cape York at the furthest tip of Queensland. The location is quiet and serene—usually a contrast to the students’ home communities, where the stresses of community violence, family fighting, alcoholism and drug abuse are often intense.

Mothers are supported to be the primary carers for their children, whilst also:

  • studying their high-school certificates,
  • participating in local playgroups and learning about positive parenting and childhood development,
  • learning about and implementing early childhood educational principles (e.g. targeting early-childhood literacy),
  • learning to care for themselves and live independently,
  • supporting each other on their journeys through early parenthood.

During downtime, mothers and their children build spend quality time together. The School’s 24-hour staff provides travel to local beaches, shops and playgroups. This extra-curricular support assists mothers and children to build attachment. It also supports students to get to know their peers; they become like family, helping and supporting each other as they go.

The School has started out small, only accepting 20 students at any one time, and focused on re-engaging young mothers and other disengaged Indigenous women in education—a turning point in their lives. Since the School opened in early 2016, students and their children have come from a variety of remote and regional communities across the far-north of Queensland and the Northern Territory. Over the first Semester of 2017, students achieved an average attendance rate of 77%. This is a dramatic turnaround; at least 16% of the School’s students did not attend school at all during the 12 months prior to coming to the Girl Academy, while the remaining students had patchy attendance histories.

Prior to attending the Girl Academy, many students had few aspirations for the future. For many, this is changing:

  • “When I finish school I want to go to university and learn how to be a vet. In [my home community], I use bush medicine to treat dog sickness and injuries. I want to be a vet who also uses bush medicine.”
  • “Our teachers make sure our learning is connected to real life. I used to be scared to make mistakes, but now I see a mistake as an opportunity to learn. Some of the problems we have to solve are really hard but they are problems we have to solve when we leave school.”
  • “I really enjoy Girl Academy. I can have my baby girl with me and keep going with my education. I am learning to write essays and do complicated maths in class…”

Students’ children also benefit. One student—a fourteen-year-old mother from a remote community—came to the School with her eight-month-old child in early 2016. The baby was, at that time, behind in key milestones and had low muscle tone (hypotonia). The mother loved her child and wanted the best for them. She made sure the child was well fed and clean, but beyond that had not been taught about other things her child needed to develop their cognitive and physical abilities.

At the School, the child and their mother were connected with a variety of support services, including a General Practitioner, Speech/LanguageTherapist and Occupational Therapist, who collaborated with the School to develop a support plan. The baby received direct treatment from the medical team, who also worked with the baby’s mother to teach and show her methods of supporting her child’s development. The baby’s mother engaged with other Girl Academy mums and participated in playgroups, where she learned how to engage her child in a manner that would support its development. After four months, the child had come from only being able to lie on its back without head control (at eight months of age) to reaching most of its developmental milestones (at around twelve months of age). Since then, mum and baby have continued to thrive.

Stories like these tell us that the support mothers and other students receive at the Girl Academy are making a real difference in their lives. The School is still very new and, of course, is learning and refining its approach as it goes. There is still much to learn about forging this new path in the educational system and there have been some speed bumps along the way. For instance, because the School crosses multiple portfolios (i.e. secondary education, early-childhood development/education, health), the pathway to securing appropriate funding has been challenging. The largely siloed funding approach that is common across Australian government departments, as well as many governments across the world, make it more difficult to find funding for holistic approaches, even though these are often what is needed to ensure long-term positive change. The Girl Academy is grateful for the financial support it does receive from the Australian State and Commonwealth governments, but it also relies heavily on philanthropy to sustain its ‘extra-curricular’ functions—particularly its much-needed health and wellbeing support and early-childhood education functions.

By its very nature, working with disengaged and often severely disadvantaged young women also poses challenges. High student turnover and attrition rates are an inevitable reality and the School does its utmost to re-engage students who choose to leave early. In an effort to intervene earlier in young women’s lives, the School has also enrolled students who are not parenting, but are similarly disengaged and at risk. This has enabled us to interrupt the cycle of disadvantage for some girls.

The School will continue to test different approaches based on the evidence it gathers as it goes. However, despite the challenges, we are buoyed by the successes that have been seen to date. Overall, the experience so far demonstrates that by taking a more holistic and coordinated approach to assisting young at-risk Indigenous mothers, it is possible to reframe teenage pregnancy as a turning point in a young mother’s life—a point at which the mother can take charge of their future, and the future of their child, and change them for the better.

We are only, one school operating in one part of Australia; statistics show that the problem of youth disengagement from education, including as a result of teenage pregnancy, is far more widespread. There is a serious need in Australia, and elsewhere where this issue exists, to offer more holistic solutions to young parents in need. As we have found out, this may mean treading a new path and meeting challenges along the way, but the outcomes will be worth the fight.


    1. Closing the Gap Report, 2017. (Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2017).

    2. Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: key indicators, 2016 (Productivity Commission, Canberra, 2016).

    3. Evans, A. Education and the resolution of teenage pregnancy in Australia. Health Sociology Review 13(1): 27–42 (2004).

    4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, birth and pregnancy outcomes [online] (2016).

    5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Births Australia 2012 data cube [online] (2012).

    6. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census 2016 community profile for Cape York (SA2) [online] (2016).

    7. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census 2016 community profile for Brisbane (C) [online] (2016).

    8. Evans, A. Education and the resolution of teenage pregnancy in Australia. Health Sociology Review 13(1): 27–42 (2004), p.32.

    9. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Births Australia 2012 data cube [online] (2012).

    10. Preventing youth sexual violence and abuse in West Cairns and Aurukun: establishing the scope, dimensions and dynamics of the problem. (Smallbone, S., Rayment-McHugh, S. and Smith, D., Griffith Youth Forensic Service, Griffith University, 2013).

    11. Guthridge, S., Li, L., Silburn, S., Li, S., McKenzie, J. and Lynch, J. Impact of perinatal health and socio-demographic factors on school education outcomes: a population study of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in the Northern Territory. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 51, 778–786 (2015).

    12. Marino, J., Lewis, L., Bateson, D., Hickey, M. and Skinner, R. Teenage mothers. Australian Family Physician 45(10), 712-717 (2016).

    13. Gilligan, C., Sanson-Fisher, R., D’Este, C., Eades, S. and Wenitong, M. Knowledge and attitudes regarding smoking during pregnancy among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women. Medical Journal of Australia 190(10), 557–561 (2009).

    14. Ibiebele, I., Coory, M., Boyle, F., Humphrey, M., Vlack, S. and Flenady, V. Stillbirth rates among Indigenous and non-Indigenous women in Queensland, Australia: is the gap closing? BJOG, doi: 10.1111/1471-0528.13047 (2014).

    15. Investing in women and girls (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2009).

    16. Girl Effect (Girl Effect, 2007).

    17. Women in the economy: selected exhibits (McKinsey & Company, 2011).

    18. Schultz, P. Why governments should invest more to educate girls. World Development 30(2): 207–225 (2002).

    19. Closing the Gap report (Commonwealth of Australia. 2016).

    20. Investing in women and girls (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2009).

    21. Women and the sustainable development goals (United Nations Women, n.d.).

    22. Investing in women and girls (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2009).

    23. Investing in women and girls (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2009).

    24. For instance, Schultz (2002) found that women’s education is more likely to be related to improvements in child health, stature and schooling. OECD (2009) found that women who complete their secondary schooling have fewer and healthier children and also send their own children to school.


Zoe Staines

Former Senior Policy Officer and Manager of Evaluation at Cape York Institute; currently an independent Research Consultant.


Fiona Jose

Executive General Manager at Cape York Partnership.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *