Jamaica is a patriarchal society. Yes, you may say, “But Jamaican women are so strong.” But the evidence is out there and easy to find. Jamaica is a traditional, conservative, patriarchal society. Men in their fifties and sixties run things. They may wear uniform, they may wear a business suit, they may sit in Parliament. But the men are the ones busy preserving the status quo.
It is true: Jamaican women are very strong – or, I should say, resilient. I have always known this; but since I started working with a small non-governmental organization called Eve for Life I have become much more aware of the complex web of disempowerment that operates daily at many levels and in many aspects of women’s lives. It is a kind of network of “no’s” – no, that is not possible; no, that is actually against the law; no, that’s not for you. The “no’s” are especially loud, and visible, in our change-resistant public institutions, as well as in churches and in many business places, sadly. And it is painfully evident in inter-personal relationships, where the disempowered woman so often ends up… yes, a victim of harassment, abuse and worse.
Imagine, then, if you are a vulnerable teenage mother. Some of the girls whom Eve for Life supports are also living with HIV. I was pleased to participate last week in a television program (“Live at Seven” on CVM Television) to discuss the concerns raised recently by Opposition Senator, Kamina Johnson Smith. The young Senator has questioned the law that states that pregnant schoolgirls must be “excluded” from high school; and that they are only allowed to return if the Minister of Education approves (this practice has, we are told, been somewhat modified over the years). But in any case, a student who has given birth has to apply to the principal, in the hopes of being admitted to her school (or another school) to continue her education after the child is born. The school principal will decide whether the girl is deemed suitable to return to school.
In the opening report, a journalist interviewed two teenage mothers, who became pregnant at fourteen and fifteen years old and who are now back at school, thanks to the efforts of Eve for Life. They face challenges – the stigma of being in a “baby mother class” as they have fallen behind in their studies by this time. The teachers “don’t expect much of them.” But they do their very best. Their “baby fathers” were in their twenties. They committed statutory rape (see Article 50 of the Offences Against the Persons Act) as the girls were under sixteen. Were these young men charged? I am not sure.
And so, the girl is punished. Firstly, by being “excluded” (a nice word for “kicked out”) when she is discovered to be pregnant, and sent home to consider her misfortune, like the “bad girl” she is. The second stage of humiliation is having to go on bended knee to be allowed to continue the education that, Eve for Life believes, is firmly her right.
The Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) representative on the program wanted to “dispel the myth” that throwing a pregnant girl out of school is punishment. He went on to say that the pregnant teens are well cared for by the Women’s Centre Foundation of Jamaica – a government agency that he said does a “fantastic job” – and that “almost all” students are, in fact, “re-integrated.” Everyone is happy and caring, and the system works perfectly. (Back at school, the guidance counselors are – well, stretched. In fact, the JTA rep mentioned that at the high school where he is currently principal, there is one guidance counselor to 700 children. We know that the stressed-out counselors spend most of their time dealing with schoolyard fights, etc. Do they have time for a young mother?)
But alas! Most of the time “the child excludes herself,” said the JTA representative (but I thought he said most of them returned?) And why does she voluntarily stay out of school, one wonders? Of course, it is clear that they were not wanted at school; it takes enormous will and determination to throw yourself at the mercy of a school principal, who may or may not accept you back. It’s at his/her discretion. Many of the girls do not have the family support or the remaining self-esteem to be able to do this. Certainly little or no support from the “system.”
So, let us look at some facts and figures: According to Jamaica’s Registrar General’s Department, there were 42,161 live births in 2008. Of these the vast majority were out of wedlock (35,596) by the way, so it would be safe to say that all the teens fall into this category. Out of this number 7,680 births were to girls age 19 and under (229 of them under 15). My Math isn’t brilliant but by my calculation this means that 21.55 per cent of all live births in 2008 were to women under 19. Births up to age 24 accounted for 44.75 per cent. This is way above the global average of 11 per cent. For 1,178 of this number this was their second child. In that same year, 18.8 per cent of births in the 15-19 year age group were actually planned – twice as many as in 2002. And 21.4 per cent of 15-24 year-olds in Jamaica have more than one partner during any given one-year period.
Eve for Life currently works with a total of 65 teenage mothers, ten of whom are aged fourteen to sixteen years and not HIV-positive. The remainder are aged 15-24 years. We also conducted a program with fifteen girls at the Women’s Centre to develop ICT material on pregnancy prevention – the website is at http://www.eveteens.com. Most of our girls did not return to school after they had their children; many had more children afterwards. Currently, 24.6 per cent of our girls are enrolled in the formal education system – either at school or pursuing training.
Now let us be clear: A significant number of Eve for Life’s mothers became pregnant as a result of rape or incest (at a workshop in St. James, this was 83 per cent). We know this to be widespread in the general population. In the five years of Eve’s existence, we have worked with over eighty girls, mostly HIV-positive.
It is true that there will be challenges, as everyone on the program noted. A pregnant schoolgirl may suffer ridicule; or conversely she may encourage other girls (although I believe the latter argument is an excuse; is pregnancy contagious?) The poor girl will not be able to manage, the exclusionists say. So, how will she manage at home, often with little or no family support, enduring the comments of her family and neighbors on a daily basis, and trying to avoid the predatory males in the community – some of whom believe it is actually beneficial to have sex with a pregnant girl? These are challenges she will face anyway. But at least she will be in a learning environment.
What about the young men? They are free to continue with their lives, pursue education and training, continue with their job, perhaps impregnate one or two other under-age girls. How many of them are actually charged with statutory rape, actual rape or incest? It would be interested to obtain more information on this, although I wonder if records exist.
The girls don’t want our pity. They do need sympathy and a real understanding of their situation; and they need us to make it possible for them to pick up their lives, determinedly, and carry on. We empathize, but as Gleaner columnist and youth/human rights activist Jaevion Nelson noted recently, showing empathy is not an endorsement of early sex. Disapproving lectures on morals are not the answer, either. And although many of these girls are actually victims of rape and incest, they do not want to be seen as victims, or “bad girls” either.
It’s clear that the old system, based on patriarchy, tradition and a conservative/religious mindset, is outdated and is not serving our girls well. If the teen mother stays home, with the fragmentation of the Jamaican family, chances are she will slip further back and quite possibly have another baby. This will be a greater burden on the state, and the cycle of poverty will continue. It is a no-win situation. If we take a fresh approach (out of the box, or as someone said recently – no box at all) and decide that we will support the girls, enabling them to reach their full potential, there is a good chance that they will become educated, trained and productive members of the society. High school graduates have more to contribute.
The JTA might be surprised to know that the vast majority of the girls do want to continue their education. They know that it is their hope for the future, and for their children’s future. With mentoring, counseling and determination, they can do it. And they do.
And isn’t that the goal and purpose of the Ministry of Education – to empower our citizens, including our vulnerable girls?
Please, let’s not reject or deny them. Let’s have a rethink.
P.S. Earlier this week, Malala Yousafzai packed her bag and returned to school in Birmingham, England. In October, 2012 she was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan because of her outspoken campaigning for girls’ education – at the age of fourteen. She is the bravest teenage girl I know. And she believes in girls’ education so strongly she risked her life for it.
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/latest/article.php?id=43037 Senator wants expelling pregnant schoolgirls removed from the books: Gleaner
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Baby-Madda–story-come-back-again_13865068 “Baby Madda” story come back again: Barbara Gloudon column/Jamaica Observer
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120923/cleisure/cleisure5.html Remove blinkers from sex education: Kamina Johnson Smith op-ed/Gleaner
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/results/Offensive–mean-spirited-and-baseless–Mr-Johnston_13808454 Offensive, mean-spirited and baseless, Mr. Johnston: Letter from Kamina Johnson Smith/Observer [column by Dr. Johnston, an advisor to the Minister of Education, is not available online]
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130124/cleisure/cleisure4.html Children need sex education: Jaevion Nelson column/Gleaner
http://www.crin.org/resources/infodetail.asp?id=27239 South Africa: Stigmatizing pregnant schoolgirls: Child Rights International Network
My take on allowing pregnant pupils to remain in class (observer.org.sz)
A Legacy of Emancipation In the Diaspora (repeatingislands.com)