Hong Kong's young mums given a chance to return to school by Caritas
Dressed in a blue school uniform and sporting a backpack, Monica blends in easily with the throngs of teenage pupils going to school - except for the baby she carries in a sling.
Passengers on their morning commute do a double take when they see Monica (not her real name) on the bus. Little do they know that the slender and fresh-faced girl is a 20-year-old married mother of two, and a full-time Secondary Four pupil who will drop off her seven-month-old son at day care before heading to school.
Monica is one of seven young mothers studying full-time at Caritas Charles Vath College in Tung Chung since last September. The school has been collaborating with Caritas Project Hyacinth, a service supporting student mothers under 24.
Winnie Ng Wai-man, the social worker in charge of the project, says it is difficult to find school placements for the young mothers because they need to find a school that will be lenient when they are late or have to skip school because of their children.
Stephen Lee Kwok-wai, principal of Caritas Charles Vath College, was happy to accept the young mothers. His school is one of three under the Direct Subsidy Scheme that offer places for mature students leading to the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE).
While the school does not have an official age limit, it mainly targets young people under 21. Lee says if the mothers are late for school or have to skip classes because of their children, his school can arrange for extra classes. "The young mothers enrolled are a lot more motivated than their classmates, because they are clear about their goal - to provide a better future for their family."
With 127 pupils in the current school year, the school also draws young people who have worked for a few years and now want to return to studying, as well as former prison inmates. "Our goal is to help socially deprived young people with few or no choices," says Lee.
The school emphasises work-based learning, providing vocational training while also building students' academic knowledge. It works closely with the commercial sector in providing training opportunities in industries such as automobile technology, beauty and hospitality. "Through work-based learning, we are encouraging the pupils to think practically about their careers, and realise the importance of language and interpersonal skills in the workplace."
Lee maintains that the need for a school like his is high, but they have not been able to afford the costs in promoting the school, and people generally find out about it from social workers, or through word of mouth from parents and alumni. About 70 per cent of its graduates will continue to study, many of whom enrolled for the Yi Jin diploma, the equivalent of completion of secondary education. About 10 per cent will go on to a sub-degree course.
Between August and October last year, Project Hyacinth surveyed 100 mothers between the ages of 13 to 24, and found that 47 per cent wished to return to school. Fifty-four per cent said what prevented them from doing that was not being able to find child care, while 37 per cent cited financial difficulties. Eighty per cent said there were inadequate full-day child care services, and 45 per cent did not know where to find them.
Public hospitals have been referring about 250 cases a year of young mothers to Project Hyacinth since it was founded in 2007.
The project currently has about 400 cases.
Monica left school after Secondary Three. At age 16, she became pregnant unexpectedly with her first child, and married before giving birth. She lives with her two children, her husband and his parents. Her husband, aged 26, now works as a telecommunications technician. It became clear to Monica that she needed to return to school in order to help provide a better future for her family. She had enrolled in a short make-up artistry course but the jobs available required at least a Secondary Five education.
Monica planned to wait until her son could go to kindergarten before returning to school. But she jumped at Project Hyacinth's chance to study for the HKDSE with their support in arranging fully subsidised day care. She now takes her youngest child to the home of a nanny before her classes. On schooldays, Monica's parents-in-law cook dinner at home and take her elder child to school.
Both Lee and Ng, the social worker, agree that ideally there should be a nursery for the children within the school so the mothers can visit and feed them during break times. But they both found this plan to be unfeasible at the time.
He is comforted by the fact that at least the young mothers will be able to sit the HKDSE examination in preparation for further education.
"By helping the mothers return to school, we are battling against intergenerational poverty," says Lee.
And in Monica's case, the benefits of her returning to school will reach beyond her family. The chance to study has allowed Monica to dream bigger. She now hopes to become a social worker, and help others.