Teen Runaways in Great Britain
In 1989, the same year that Lessing published “Debbie and Julie,” the British government recognized the problem of teen runaways by passing the Children Act, which made provisions for outreach to runaways and offered some sources of refuge for them. However, the great majority of British runaways do not receive aid from any agency or organization. Because of their wariness of authority figures, runaways are notoriously hard to trace or study. Based on police reports, approximately 43,000 children and teenagers under the age of sixteen run away from home each year in Great Britain. However, there is evidence that this statistic may minimize the problem, since many runaways are not reported missing by their families.
The majority of runaways in Great Britain are between fourteen and sixteen years old, with the gender ratio of these roughly equal. (Younger runaways are more likely to be boys.) Problems at home are the most frequently cited reasons for running away. Many runaways report arguments, sexual and emotional abuse, and domestic violence in the homes from which they flee. At least sixty percent of runaways come from homes where a divorce or other split has occurred. A high proportion of children and teens in foster care also run away.
Though runaways describe some positive results of the decision to leave home, they are a highly vulnerable population, subject to many risks. A majority of young people reported being frightened, a quarter physically injured, and one in nine sexually assaulted while on the run. Many were hungry or otherwise physically deprived, leading more than half to admit to stealing. Furthermore, a high incidence of self-destructive behavior, including suicide attempts and drug use, reflects the emotional toll on the life of a runaway.
Julie’s experience as a runaway is quite atypical. First, she runs away from a stable family. Second, she quickly finds a relatively safe and secure place to stay. However, her decision-making process reflects a feeling characteristic among runaways that staying at home is an intolerable option. Despite her luck in finding a place to live, Julie is particularly vulnerable because her pregnancy places her at a greater physical and emotional risk than the average runaway.
Teen Pregnancy on the Rise
Julie’s pregnancy reflects a dramatic demographic trend. In the 1980s the teen pregnancy rate in Great Britain rose to become one of the highest in Europe. Only a decade earlier, the country’s teen pregnancy rate was reported as average for the continent. Some experts attributed the troubling rise to Britain’s economic problems, supported by the fact that poorer areas had far higher teen pregnancy rates than the rest of the country. Youngsters with few hopes for the future saw little reason not to get pregnant. Several cases involving pregnant preteens were highlighted in the press, bringing widespread attention to the problem. Though this was a period of social conservatism, such publicity led to activism for earlier and more extensive sex education and easier access to contraception for teens.
Though she apparently did not consider it, abortion would have been a legal option for Julie. Abortion has been legal in Great Britain since 1968 and may be performed up to twenty-eight weeks into the pregnancy, or through the second trimester. It is covered as a medical procedure under the public health care system, in which anyone over the age of sixteen can consent to his or her own medical treatment. Girls under sixteen may also decide independently on abortion if their doctors find them capable of making such a decision, but most doctors require parental consent.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2001.