Little daddy

BEN Chan, a 19-year-old junior in a hair salon, is the other half of the teenage pregnancy story, one that gets scant attention.

When he was just 17, Ben became a father. His girlfriend was 15, under the legal age to even have sex.

Ben is one of hundreds of teenage boys who every year find themselves faced with the trauma of their girlfriend's unwanted pregnancy. While official help exists for teenage mothers, there is no specific advice available for fathers.

Not only is there little counselling, if the girl is under 16, the boy faces prosecution for having sex with an underage girl. The maximum penalty is five years' imprisonment.

For Ben, his girlfriend's pregnancy was the beginning of a nightmare. He came from a poor family and his parents divorced when he was still a child. She had run away from home. The couple started living together two years ago.

At the time his girlfriend became pregnant, Ben, who left school after Form Three, was juggling several part-time jobs: in a hair salon, a pizza restaurant and a warehouse.

''I knew my girlfriend was under a lot of pressure but I just didn't know what to do. Nobody ever showed me how to cope with the problem,'' he said.

''When her parents found out she was pregnant, her father asked me to marry her but I knew I couldn't.

''My life was hell. I couldn't even earn enough for myself. It wasn't just the money which worried me. Even if I had worked day and night to provide for them, I would not have been a good father because I wouldn't have any time left for my child.'' Although the couple knew about contraception and the likely consequences of having unprotected sex, like many teenagers, they lived only for the day, Ben said, and never thought where their actions might lead.

''I feel I was the one to blame,'' he said. ''She told me when she was two months' pregnant but after that we just pretended everything was normal. We did nothing to deal with the baby. Nor did we receive any family support. Maybe I wanted to deny what was taking place.

''I did not fulfil my duty as a boyfriend or a father.'' As Ben spoke about his guilt, he was overwhelmed and burst into tears. ''I tell you I wish I was the one who had become pregnant. I wish I was the one who suffered the pain and fear, not my girlfriend. '' At seven months his girlfriend sought assistance from Mother's Choice, a charity which specialises in helping pregnant teenagers. She moved into its quarters to give birth and the baby was subsequently adopted.

But unlike many teenage fathers, Ben determined to stand by his girlfriend and take the legal consequences. The result: he was prosecuted and found guilty of having sex with a girl under 16. He was fined $500.

''If I hadn't gone to the hospital, Immigration Department or adoption unit, I could have avoided prosecution. But I wanted my identity to be on record so that my daughter could trace me if she wishes to when she's grown up. Maybe that is the only way I can share the responsibility and show her my affection,'' he said. He never saw the baby.

Mimi Tam Kam-san, the social worker at Mother's Choice responsible for Ben's case, acknowledges the difficulties in dealing with teenage fathers.

''Though we are aware of the problem, social welfare resources are scarce so we find it hard to allocate time and energy to the fathers, '' Ms Tam said.

''Assistance is primarily given to the mothers because they are the one who face the immediate crisis of giving birth to a baby.

''The problems fathers experience are more subtle and may require long-term counselling,'' she explained.

Caritas Family Service social worker Wong Sau-mei has also come across teenage fathers with emotional problems.

''There aren't many fathers willing to seek help as they are afraid of the legal charges,'' Ms Wong says. ''But my experience shows that boys suffer a great sense of helplessness. They just don't know how to reveal it. It definitely causes problems for them.'' According to James Lai Yu-lim, a psychology lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, boys who end up becoming teenage fathers often have little family support and poor control of their impulses.

Some refuse to take any responsibility when their girlfriends become pregnant, others seek escape to avoid prosecution. Those with stronger family support may choose marriage but the union tends to be unstable and may not last many years.

But many boys do feel guilty and helpless about their girlfriend's pregnancy and these feelings may cast a shadow over their adult lives. ''The guilt may last for years and emerge whenever the young man goes over his past ordeal,'' he said.

A major obstacle to offering help to teenage fathers, he said, was the fear of legal charges. Often their girlfriends refused to reveal their identities to protect them.

But he also said that, despite the trauma they felt, it was unlikely that teenage fathers would actively seek help because men are verbally less expressive. ''They don't know what to do and what to say,'' he said.

''In addition, the social workers or counsellors dealing with teenage pregnancies are mainly women. This may give young boys the impression that the problem is female-oriented. Fathers are sidelined in the crisis and are put off from seeking help.'' Ben feels there is definitely a need for assistance to be given to young fathers as well as mothers.

''I don't think teenage boys are given much help. I was as immature as my girlfriend but society treats me as a villain who has ruined a girl's life. This is unfair. I wanted to shoulder my share of the responsibility.'' Ben and his girlfriend broke up after the child was born and she is now living with a 30-year-old man. ''I think it's all my fault,'' he said.

Dickson LeeYoung father Ben Chan . . . ''Society treats me like a villain. I wanted to share the responsibility'' 'Not only is there little counselling, if the girl is under 16, the boy faces prosecution for having sex with an underage girl