Women’s Centres of Jamaica Foundation Programmes




Sexual Abuse and the Girl Child


The following paper was presented at the Youth Support International Conference on Adolescent Health and Welfare – London 1998 

Women’s Centres of Jamaica Foundation Programmes 

Pamela McNeil 

We can talk a lot about statistics and figures but it might be better if we remembered that young people we are working for are not statistics, they are people, and if you don’t mind, I’ll read all the information and show you some slides of the young women who passed through our Women’s Centres programme in Jamaica. 

I’d like to go back to the year 1977 when in Jamaica we had been watching with dismay the increasing number of births to teen mothers. In that year 31% of the total births were to teenagers and these young mothers were likely of course to follow the usual pattern of repeat pregnancies leading to 3 to 4 children by the time they were 20. Those of us who were teachers can remember the deep distress we felt having to observe the total waste of so many bright girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy, resigned perhaps to the drudgery of poverty. And they represented a huge loss in national potential. And add to this plight that of their children who in many cases were blamed by their mothers as the cause of all ills besetting them, hence they were very often neglected and sometimes abused. All this leads to the dream of a day when these young mothers and their children were given the opportunity to achieve their full potential and take their rightful place in the process of national development. The core programme for adolescent mothers was established in January 1978 and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary and it was lovely to have Diana Birch from Youth Support there with us at that celebration a couple of weeks ago. Today we have implemented the programme in 7 main cities across Jamaica.  

The main objective was to motivate young mothers to choose education instead of continuous motherhood. Only then could we succeed in delaying second pregnancies and raising the employment potential of these young people, a viable alternative to depending on men for support and consequently having more babies. It’s never enough to put young mothers in home economics or sewing projects. This couldn’t even be considered in the cases where bright, intelligent, promising teenage girls became pregnant before completing their formal education. To obtain quality results a quality programme had to be implemented. Academic, skill-training areas were key other components of the programme had to be included in order to deal with the young mother, her baby, her baby’s father, her parents in a holistic way. Therefore we had to set up a practical efficient process which would facilitate assessment of each of the participants for academic capability and potential, emotional status, self-worth, economic status or potential, knowledge of sexuality and related issues, nutritional status and acceptability of family planning. The Women’s Centres of Jamaica Foundations Adolescent Mothers Programme addresses all these facets. The academic skill training instruction is geared towards the girls’ capability and potential. Extensive individual and group counselling, take care of self respect, emotional problems and the child’s grasp of sexual reproductive health and family planning knowledge. You notice I say child because some of our little ones are 12 and 13 years old. All of them are under 16, 16 years and under. Experts from the programme of course are used to deal with the problems which fall outside our usual ambit. Our participants are either pregnant or lactating mothers and we are aware that only a healthy well-nourished mother can produce a healthy child, In the case of the teenage mother we are in fact dealing with 2 growing children. Obviously with these pregnancies there is a risk that neither mother or child will have sufficient nourishment for proper growth and development.  

We use the existing facilities in other agencies, whether these be educational or provision of services as it’s important not to duplicate any services that are already there. But also as a part of cementing relationship between the agencies.  

I’d like to go through the various programmes that we deal with in the Women’s Centre Programme. Of course the core programme as I’ve said is the Adolescent Mothers Programme. The mandate of this is of course to continue the education of young women who get pregnant in school and place them back into the regular school system after the birth of their babies Delaying subsequent pregnancies until the young woman has reached her professional or vocational goal. I’d like to tell you that many many of these young women move easily through secondary school into tertiary institutions eventually serving their nation as teachers, nurses, we have 4 doctors that have graduated, lawyers, administrators or entrepreneurs.  

As well as the 7 main centres we have 5 functioning out-reach stations, the outreach programme provides assistance to those women in deep rural or inner city areas who cannot often get to our main centre. The main centre in Kingston, Jamaica also provides O-level examination courses to facilitate 11th graders, fifth-formers who become pregnant in their crucial examination year. This Kingston centre has been given the status of examination centre by our Ministry of Education, so the students are not only coached towards the exams but can sit the exam at that centre. Dormitory and it’s the only residential aspect of the programme, we do not believe in institutionalising our children. But the small dormitory is provided for those fifth-formers from the rural centres who wish to enter O-level classes. Each centre operates a day nursery of course where are babies of the teen mothers are cared for, breast-feeding is facilitated and good parenting habits for both the baby mother and the baby father are encouraged. We’ve had to expand 2 of these day nurseries in Kingston and Montego Bay to facilitate babies of poor working mothers who can’t afford the private nurseries, the costs are very high.  

 Several counselling strategies are used in the centre but the main thing is the importance placed in ancestry and pride in being a Caribbean woman. The dignity of womanhood is stressed as is human development and its effect on future generations. Pride in our children and careful planning of our families is also given equal importance. The effect of the change in the perception of themselves as individuals is best understood by seeing the vivid contrast between the girls just entering the programme who are quiet, shy, reticent and those leaving who are relaxed, cheerful, outspoken and optimistic. Having discovered a new dignity they hold their heads high and talk easily on all subjects including sexual and reproductive health. They are happy to have their baby but do not want another child until they have established themselves in career or job. It does not require much encouragement on the part of the staff for the young women to accept a method of contraception. Each of the 7 centres, the main centre offer some vocational training as well as academic curricular, for example one centre offers cosmetology, another - home economics, all centres do chicken rearing and some fish-baking, bee-keeping and vegetable growing, the main thing here is when the girl goes back to school she has another string to her bow, if all else fails she can do something like that to be economically viable. Kingston centre concentrates on drapery, quilting and the production of baby clothes. At all centres counselling and referral service are given to the parents of the teen mothers particularly to her baby father and actually any other woman who happens to see the sign Woman’s Centre and wants to walk in gets some help.  

To date over 22 thousand young women have been returned to school in the island of Jamaica and 1.4% second pregnancy rate has been maintained throughout the programme. Figures for 1997 show that of the 3,016 births island-wise to mandated age group 16 years and under the programme accommodated 1546 in that year or 51% of these young women and I don’t think it’s too bad when you can see we only have 1 centre per 2 parishes across the island.  

We have another programme for older women skill-training and these pilot projects have been quite successful in the urban areas of Kingston and the rural townships of Morant Bay in St.Thomas and in Clarendon. Over 600 young men and women over 17 years to 25 years have been trained in this particular project to date and most of them are now either employed or self-employed and we are in the process of expanding this programme to other rural centres. We also provide academic instruction and counselling to children aged 9 to 13 years in a well-integrated homework programme. This programme is operated out of the main urban woman’s centres and it is an attempt to delay first pregnancies and steer the young towards education rather than early sexual activity.  

 We have set up a counselling clinic at our Kingston centre and this clinic services children and adolescents of any age with any problem whatsoever. Those children who are already sexually active are assisted in choice and provision of a contraceptive method. We don’t have any problem in providing contraceptives to our youngsters who are under the age of consent under 16. And this clinic now has part-time voluntary medical personnel conducts peer-counselling training session for school children during our summer vocation periods and that is where Dr Birch came with us last summer and handled quite a few of those sessions for us. We also run parenting education classes. USAID has given us some money so we decided to look at the street children and we have quite a few in Jamaica. And out of 5 rural centres for children who have already dropped out of schools or those at risk of dropping out we have what we call an “upliftment programme”. Remedial work is done in those classes but the goal is to keep them at school, return them to school or place them either in training institutions or employment.  

 We are constantly attempting to develop new methodology in our programmes, we have text-books and teaching aids in abundance but lecturing alone as you know does not work with this generation. The accent is on the visual. The attention span of the young is shorter, they need family life sex education programmes which are compatible with the life-style of the majority of our young in Jamaica. And the background factors of poverty, poor and overcrowded housing, incest, matri-focal households, prostitution and drugs can’t be ignored. The teen mother comes to us at the centres as a product of a negative society and family background. A profile of a typical; student could show a bright 15 year old who comes from a low income housing usually headed by a single parent with additional six children living in a crowed home, she attends a secondary or all-age school, her mother usually was also a teen mother. She enrols through referral from another agency, usually a school or a clinic, or by word of mouth now, and by this time she is in her second trimester. A product of the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome. She may or may not have had much knowledge about her sexual and reproductive rights. Her mother and herself usually agree that the baby will not be given up for adoption and she wants to go back to school. Her baby father would be a young man under 25 and not working. He accepts paternity, is apologetic, knows about family planning, would like the girl to continue her education and he promises to help in any way he can to facilitate her going back to school. He looks forward to having his cut.   

One of the most tragic consequences as you know of teen pregnancy is the curtailment of the young woman’s academic education. The practice of throwing the young women out of school is bad enough, but to victimise them further by action or implication in placing them in school training or in essence making her a good house-wife for some lucky man is not worthy of our societies whose representative signs for many international documents dealing with the rights of children and women’s rights and reproductive rights. The right of a girl to education is not dependant on whether or not she becomes pregnant prior to the completion of her schooling, it is an inalienable right and must be upheld.  

A recent tracer study in 1995 showed that the average second pregnancy rate over the years from the programmes inception in 1979 has fluctuated between 1.3 and 1.4%. That the young mothers who have had another child waited an average of 5.5 years before embarking on the second pregnancy. Abortions are nil. Their children, those teen mothers’ children are now in school and amongst the girls the children of those children of the teenage mothers who are now teenagers themselves no pregnancies at all have occurred. I think this programme therefore completes that very necessary component of childhood that of academic education ensuring that the young woman grows as she should into a responsible well-educated adult. It breaks the cycle of successive generations of women bearing children in their early teens and it’s a prime example of a social programme extending its positive effect to the next generation. And it produces for the nation a cadre of well-adjusted well- educated professional instead of single mothers with many children requiring constant handouts.  

If we were to be asked today of real achievements of the Women’s Centre we would list the decrease in the destructive negative societal attitudes formerly displayed towards teenage mothers and poor women on the whole by the middle and upper classes in our society. The breakdown of the barriers from the Ministry of Education and the change which we’ve got working in the education code to allow teen mothers to return to the normal school system. The increasing co-operation and acceptance of the programme by ministries of Government, the private sector, schools and society at large. The many young women who are graduated from our programme, the scholastic achievement of the children of our former teen mother, all of those of school age are now in school.  

The results of our appeal, and this is important I think, to the relevant authorities in Jamaica regarding the criminalising effect on our young men of the age of consent law. In the case of consensual sex young baby father below the age of 23 we have got written into the law that judicial discretion be exercised before sentencing. And to have carried this through to the international stage last year in Ethiopia at the UN expert group meeting I think is a feather in our cap. Because the young men are just is much in need of our help and assurance as the young women. Of course we are presented daily with the abortion problem and surely we think the surge of abortion can only prevented by early access to sex education. and if young people are sexually active to contraceptive techniques and quality service and counselling. We listen to many of the young women who’ve been assisted by our Women’s Centres and we find common factors running through all of their poignant stories. How casual these boy-girl relationships are, there is no stability at all in this episode, nothing deep-rooted, no thinking through, no positive decision to have children. On the one hand the young  women appear to want to continue the relationship, however there is rarely such an implicit response from the young man. And we note their comments some of the young men, if I have to pay out money I will pay her money, but that’s all, everything else is with her. To be fair the lack of gainful employment might be the cause of the avoidance of responsibility by the young men, but I think there are other ingrained societal attitudes in play. Another common threat appears to be the apparent relationship between the age of the teen mother and her own mother at first pregnancy. In one case at our Kingston centre we saw both the young mother’s mother and her grandmother being first pregnant at 15 whilst other sisters were also pregnant in their teens. We seem to be living with a norm here. But we wonder if that is the norm, why then throughout the interviews with the young moments we were given the impression that everyone connected with this young woman in the family, at school, in the community and the young woman herself is so disappointed when she becomes pregnant is the pull therefore of historical and cultural tradition so at variance with the hopes and dreams of those involved or does poverty and its attendant social melodies and emotional neglect and ignorance win in the end. What is very clear is that all players involved are convinced that education is the key to upward mobility. Participants who are now at one of our Women’s Centres will talk to you of taking my examinations now I still have a chance. Parents clearly come across as being disappointed when their daughter has to leave school and delighted at the prospect of her getting another chance through a Women’s Centre. Even her baby father, if they are sorry about anything at all they are sorry about their girlfriend’s having to leave school.  

In all the evaluations on our programmes there appears a clear difference between client and control groups. Women’s Centres of Jamaica Foundation clients are able to complete their education, are higher achievers, find different career path, find jobs as twice the rate and fetch much higher pay than the control group. Doctor Handa of the University of the West Indies did what we requested him to for many years and that’s a cost benefit analysis and I think this should be done much more often with social programmes. Because his cost benefit analysis of Women’s Centre Foundation states that the social and private benefits of the back to school programme for the adolescent mother in the year 1993 due solely to increased education was a 136 million Jamaican dollars. There was in that year a reduction of 323 births due to the programme and the implied savings to the health centre was 13 million Jamaican dollars. We are very glad with his analysis because of course  it helps us all the time when we are applying to the Government of Jamaica for our budget. But he rounds off his analysis by stating that each dollar invested in the Women’s Centre programme results in $7 worth of benefit to the society and that’s sort of analysis is very important as I say for social programmes. If we really believe that reproductive rights are human rights as women, we have to recognise the synergy that links reproductive rights and education to the empowerment of young women. It is this that has been demonstrated time and time again in all of these 20 years of the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation. Thank you very much.  


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