KINGSTON, Jamaica — Twenty-eight-year-old Antoinette Sykes is happy to have a job that allows her to make a difference in the lives of young girls. But there was a time when life was not so easy for Antoinette. At 15, while still in high school, she found herself pregnant.
“I just kept thinking everything would be set back for me…my future. I just kept having that negative thought,” Antoinette recalls.
In Jamaica, the immediate consequence of teenage pregnancy is expulsion from school. In addition, a pregnant girl could find herself abandoned and isolated by her family and peers. Antoinette considers herself lucky; in her time of distress, her guidance counsellor at school told her about the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation (WCJF). The Centre is a Government initiative that provides continuing education, counselling and skills training for girls 17 years and under who become pregnant while still in school.
Learning to be a better mom
“The Centre really played a role for me. They teach us about child care...how to take care of ourselves and basically how to be a better mom for our baby,” says Antoinette.
Antoinette’s parents, although disappointed with her early pregnancy, supported her during this difficult period. As a result, she was able to continue her high school education at the Women’s Centre during her pregnancy. After delivering her baby, she returned to the formal education system.
Today, Antoinette works at the Centre as a senior secretary and shares her story with the young girls who come in for support and help. The girls are often frightened and demoralized, but talking with Antoinetteabout her experience helps build their confidence and raise their self esteem.
“It’s going to be hard,” she tells them. “People are going to verbally abuse you and look down on you. But you see that child that you are carrying? Cherish it. My son is my life,” she tells them.
The WCJF helps over 1,000 teen mothers each year through its network of centres and outreach stations all across the island.
Many pregnant girls lack parental support
Executive Director Beryl Weir is concerned about the lack of parental support that some of these girls receive at a time when they are emotionally and financially vulnerable. She says that during the 2008-2009 period, 206 of the 1,607 adolescents who registered did not complete the programme, due mainly to lack of support.
“Some parents firmly believe that their responsibility ends with their daughter’s pregnancy,” Mrs. Weir notes. “This negates all our efforts to improve the quality of life for the teen mother and her baby because if they are not in the program, we cannot help them to transition back into the school system after delivering their babies.”
Hernando Agudelo, Deputy Director of UNFPA’s Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean, says that preventing adolescent pregnancies is a top priority, but reaching young people and parents with messages about sexual and reproductive health is difficult and sometimes controversial.
“Sometimes they have misunderstandings,” he explains. “They think that the schools are going to teach the children how to have sex. It is not, ‘how to have sex.’ It is how to be responsible with their sexuality.”
In Jamaica, a deeply religious society dominated by Christians of many denominations, a girl can legally consent to sex at age 16, but she needs parental consent to access medical services until she reaches 18. Reproductive health policy guidelines give health professionals permission to provide counselling, contraceptive advice and treatment to minors, if in the best interest of the child. Still, the mixed messages, coupled with the personal and religious values of some health professionals, have resulted in a reluctance to provide adolescents access to voluntary family planning and reproductive health services.
Teen pregnancies declining
The latest reproductive health survey (Jamaica 2008) reveals an encouraging 8.8 percent decline in adolescent fertility. Between 2002 and 2008, fertility dropped from 79 to 72 births per 1,000 young women (15-19). There was also a significant drop (12.6 percent) in the number of births to younger girls between 2008 and 2009. The drop in adolescent fertility is attributed to a decline in the age of sexual debut, as well as an increase in the number of adolescent females using contraception. While encouraged by this downward movement, Ministry of Health officials remain concerned.
“The fact that there are still unplanned and mis-timed pregnancies indicate that a significant portion of teenagers would not have taken precautionary measures to protect themselves from contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections,” says Dr. Eva Lewis-Fuller, Director, Health Promotion and Protection in Jamaica’s Ministry of Health.
“There is also concern regarding the interruption in schooling and the attainment of individual goals among those girls who are getting pregnant prematurely,” she adds.
UNFPA is working with the Ministry of Education on a program to sensitize high school students to sexual and reproductive health. The curriculum includes a UNFPA-endorsed and funded manual on reproductive health and rights for adolescents and young people, “You, Your Life, Your Dreams.” The manual clarifies myths and misperceptions surrounding topics that are often considered taboo.
A road map for healthier adolescence
The government is now developing an Adolescent Strategic Plan to guide the national response to adolescent and pre-adolescent health and development. It is intended to be a road map to achieve a healthy adolescence for all of Jamaica’s youth. UNFPA is supporting this initiative.
While efforts to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancies are intensified, UNFPA continues to support the work of the WCJF to ensure that those girls who do become pregnant have access to the services they need to mitigate the effects of early pregnancy on their educational, economic and social opportunities.
Fathers need support too
Sixteen-year-old Kazan is the father of an eight-month-old baby girl, Shakira. He claims he didn’t know anything about protection methods when he and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Nathalie, began having sexual relations.
“Actually, I never knew what was taking place. I knew late. So, nothing could have been done about it,” he says.
When Kazan found out he would soon be a father, Kazan’s parents were quick to advise him. “They sat down with me and talked to me and said ‘Look here, you have a child coming. You need to take responsibility. You need to be a man and stand up to your own destiny.’ So, from that I just looked into myself, and planned to stand up as a man,” he recalls.
Nathalie’s parents were not that forgiving. They were very upset because she’s their only daughter. Meanwhile, Kazan’s life has grown complicated. He now faces difficulty juggling school and his new responsibilities as a parent. He advises his peers not to make the same mistake he did. “I want to say to every young individual, ‘you must use a condom.’ And abstinence makes sense…because being a young father is not easy in our society,” he says.
Every week he visits the Women’s Centre, where he receives counseling on sexual and reproductive health matters. He is also encouraged to focus on his own personal development and to offer both financial and moral support to his ‘baby-mother’ and child.
The positive trends highlighted in the latest reproductive health survey indicate that the approach being taken to address the problem of teenage pregnancies is bearing fruit. But according to the Ministry of Health, much more work needs to be done to fully communicate sexual and reproductive health messages to young people.
In the meantime, the Women’s Centre continues to be a trailblazer in shaping policy and attitudes toward teen pregnancy in Jamaica. It is promoting a holistic approach to the problems associated with unintended pregnancies by helping those affected to continue to pursue their education and other social and economic development goals.