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Jamaica struggles to stem teen pregnancies

A debate over teenage pregnancies in Jamaica heated up when two MPs from opposite ends of the political spectrum proposed forced virginity testing for teenagers and sterilisation of young mothers.

Teenage girls account for nearly one quarter of all births in this island nation – a fact that leads to collective worry, sermons, finger-pointing and, occasionally, over-the-top demands by anxious politicians.

Sharon Hay-Webster, a Member of Parliament from the ruling Peoples National Party and Ernie Smith, MP from the opposition Jamaica Labour Party – in a rare joining of forces during parliamentary debate in July 2003 – proposed controversial measures to stem teen pregnancies and reduce the burden they put on the nation's purse.

Concerned over the number of young women who seemingly shun contraceptives and whose education and life prospects have been permanently interrupted by the first of multiple pregnancies, Hay-Webster called for introducing compulsory sterilisation (tubal ligation) of young women with more than three children, arguing that "the state cannot cope with the responsibility of so many unwanted childbirths … we are taking care of people … from the womb to the tomb."

Smith, a lawyer by training, suggested mandatory medical examinations of schoolgirls aged 16 – the age of consent – and under "to determine if their virginity is still intact".

The calls for forced sterilisation and virginity tests – made amidst fiery exchanges over a damning report on sexual and other forms of abuse in several children's homes and places of safety – provoked a public and media outcry.

"These are really ridiculous proposals, and they take away attention from the critical issue of the children's homes," asserts Dr Carolyn Gomes, head of Jamaicans for Justice, a local human rights group, and a mother of four. Such proposals, she adds, would interfere with women's and girls' rights to privacy – including the right to decide on their family size – security of person and equality before the law.

"If women want [sterilization], they should be able to have it but the state can't force it," agrees Dr Glenda Simms, executive director of the Bureau of Women's Affairs. Presently, tubal ligation can only be done if women are told about other contraceptive options, receive counselling and have signed a consent form to do the procedure.

Fortunately, the urgings of Hay-Webster and Smith are not under serious parliamentary consideration, which is a relief to Carol, an East Kingston woman who knows the price of too early and too many pregnancies.

"I would do it [tubal ligation] but the government don't have a right to say women can't have any [more] children."

Still, the 31-year-old mother of six wishes she had known about contraception as a teenager and planned her family. "I would have stopped at three [children]. I would have my first at 20 [instead of 17]," she says. Carol and her unemployed husband struggle to provide adequate food, lunch money and books for three school age children, good health care for a sick son as well as coping with a toddler and an infant.

According to the United Nations Population Fund contraceptive use among Jamaican teens is low. Data from Jamaica's National Family Planning Board shows 66 per cent of all births are not planned and among women under age 20, 40 per cent have been pregnant at least once, and 85 per cent of these pregnancies are unplanned.

Despite a strong Christian following in this Caribbean country of 2.6 million, many Jamaicans become sexually active as early as age 14 or younger. Too early sex, according to the Board, is associated with factors such as poverty, absence of male role models at home – nearly half of households are headed by single women – and cultural approval of early childbearing, particularly in poor communities.

Women in poor neighbourhoods who haven't had a child by their twenties risk being taunted and labelled "mules" – or sterile.

Despite existing contraceptive distribution projects, many women and girls cannot access contraceptives at the right place, time and price. Young people may be embarrassed to ask and are often prevented from getting them by providers in clinics or pharmacies who can be judgemental, especially regarding sexually active young women.

And, Simms points out, politicians haven't considered that many teens become pregnant involuntarily due to rape or incest, while others have confused sex for love, especially economically dependent girls with older, persuasive men.

Professor Barbara Bailey, regional co-ordinator for the Centre for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, argues that the two July proposals imply women should be solely responsible for contraception. "It takes two to tango. Why put the onus on the female? Why not look at the thing in terms of a partnership between two people and what is the responsibility of these two people?" she asks.

As for virginity tests, human rights activists such as Joyce Hewett of the NGO Women's Inc, have been scathing. "Where will we be heading with that," she told The Jamaica Observer in July. "Virginity checks, then what?"

Young people share her scorn. Sixteen-year-old Nickeisha just laughs and says the idea is "out of order [rude]", and that her sexual status is her private business. And Donovan, 17, points out, "They would just be wasting a lot of time and money. I should know if I am [a virgin] or not. There's no test that can prove that."

He's right. There's no way to test boys, and there are no reliable tests for female virginity – the hymen can be broken through activities such as wearing tampons or playing sports.

Instead of blaming and punishing girls, experts argue that more education on parenting, sex education and family planning is needed, particularly aimed at adolescents of both sexes, who represent 20 per cent of the population.

One NGO, the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation, has helped over 22,000 adolescent mothers return to school and become economically self-sufficient since 1977, many of them becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. A 1996 study found that the positive results also continued into the next generation. All children of the early participants are in school, and no pregnancies have occurred among their adolescent children.

Says Angela, a 40-year-old mother of two who overcame obstacles to become a teacher after getting pregnant at 17: "My mom said I must be careful not to get pregnant, but I didn't understand what was happening. Society needs to educate people. We have to begin in schools with adolescents, especially in the inner city, so the cycle can be broken."

Trudy Simpson is a reporter with the Kingston daily 'The Gleaner'.

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