Michelle O’Neill’s story is not an unusual one. To be a teenage mother living in a still religiously conservative society was a traumatic experience for many young women.
She describes being prayed for as a 16-year-old pregnant teenager and being singled out when she returned to school after giving birth by those who would rather she’d taken her ‘problem’ elsewhere.
In the generation of our mothers and grandmothers, teenage mothers or those pregnant out of marriage were either forced down the aisle or spirited off to mother and baby homes.
Their pregnancy was treated like a contagion, to be hidden away behind high walls in case they ‘infected’ society with their perceived immorality.
By the 1980s young mothers were at least able to keep their babies without the same coercion, but the hangover from that time still existed in the stigma that halted the education of many young women.
Young girls disappeared in fifth year amid whispers from teachers, never to be seen again. ‘Insurance’ was often used as an excuse for not having pregnant teenagers on school property, even though pregnant teachers coped just fine.
Those lucky enough to have family support were able to return to education, although rarely in the traditional classroom setting.
I was one of those young women – my exams were finished in the much more informal setting of night classes in my local tech.
Many of those without family support were never able to reach their true potential. Hopes and dreams had to be put aside as they tried to support their child without finishing formal education.
It is heartening to know that times have changed, that schools are now not just morally but legally obliged to ensure that any pupil who becomes pregnant is supported through the remainder of their education.
Better sex education and easier access to contraception has seen a huge drop in teenage pregnancies over the last number of decades.
While Michelle O’Neill states in her honest and open interview with the BBC’s Mark Carruthers that the experience helped make her the person she is today, she also points out it is far from ideal and not a struggle that she’d want for her own children.
For those who do find themselves in a similar situation there is hope to be taken from people like the Sinn Fein deputy leader speaking out about their own experiences.
The Labour MP Angela Rayner — who has been tipped as a future party leader — had her first son at the age of 16. She is another public figure who has spoken about her experience and shown what can be achieved despite the stigma of those who would still seek to have women deprived of rights and opportunity.
There are now various options that didn’t previously exist for girls who become pregnant in their teenage years, but we can always do better in terms of childcare and flexibility for those who want to go on to an apprenticeship or to third level education.
Should Stormont be returned in the Autumn, Northern Ireland will have a First Minister who was a teenage mother. That is a clear message to those who still seek to treat young women with inequality that times have changed.