Teenage Pregnancy in Jamaica

Article excerpt

TEENAGE girls account for nearly one quarter of all births in the West Indian island of Jamaica--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'.

These 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 had 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 the age of twenty, 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 fourteen or younger. …