THE marches were invigorating. The conversations were engaging. The testimonials were compelling. The message was clear. Awareness was, in fact, heightened, as International Women’s Day (IWD) 2017 brought the nation face to face with the prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) and the issues surrounding it. The clarion call, made loudly by the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport along with other civil society organisations, was for everyone to unite to end GBV. But although IWD 2017 is behind us, we recognise that the advocacy must continue.
I intend, in this space, to call attention to the population of adolescent mothers, who, in one way or the other, have experienced gender-based violence. The stories told by these very young mothers who are enrolled at the 18 sites operated by the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation(WCJF) make the case.
*Patrice, who is 14 years old, tells her story of having been raped by a peer with whom she had gone on a school outing. *Simone was only 12 years old when her mother died. She was sent to live with an aunt, whose unkind treatment resulted in her fleeing to the home of a stranger who soon engaged her in sexual activities. *Monique, at age 16, was sent by her mother to use her “female endowments” for economic purposes.
Although these girls found the courage to share their stories, there are many others who have had similar encounters but have been acutely muted by the pain of the life-changing experience. For some of these young mothers, their repressed memories are reflected in poor academic performance, disruptive and maladaptive behaviour, withdrawal, and other signs of depression. GBV does in fact have a face.
Because the WCJF focuses on redemption, the Programme for Adolescent Mothers (PAM) collaborates with other agencies/organisations for a multi-faceted approach in addressing the issue of GBV.
• Sensitising: to increase awareness about the incidence and related issues of gender-based violence.
• Screening: to determine the extent of vulnerabilities, or whether they have, in fact, experienced GBV.
• Supporting: by way of counselling, and referring to other agencies for more detailed services as needed.
In a more general way, the WCJF will continue its advocacy to end GBV through its focus on education as the vehicle by which the adolescent mothers may elevate themselves above their circumstances; become financially independent; break the cycle of poverty which often leads to domestic violence; find their places within the wider society; and make a worthwhile contribution to their communities. In a specific way, a sound education is the tool by which the adolescent mothers will be empowered to change the narrative of their existence, and altogether redirect the course of their lives.
The wider society is called upon to continue beyond 2017 the advocacy to end GBV. In this vein, the adolescent mothers must be encouraged to advance their education. The pregnant girls who leave their homes each day and journey to the Women’s Centre, dodging insults along the way, demonstrate tremendous courage, internal fortitude, ambition and purpose. We must look beyond the early pregnancy of these adolescent mothers, and ensure that recidivism is kept at bay. We must commit to provide them with the support they need to continue and complete their secondary education. We must uphold their dignity as they seek ante/postnatal care at the health care facilities. We must provide them with the necessary financial and psycho-social support when they are reintegrated into the formal school system after the birth of their babies. We encourage those adolescent mothers who do not have the courage to face the public: Put aside your shame; get up, get out, and get on with your education.
IWD 2017 is behind us, but the advocacy continues until parents begin to pay closer attention to their children and their related struggles of adolescent development. The advocacy must continue until fathers understand the difference between being a supportive parent and being a sexual partner. The advocacy continues until perpetrators seek and receive the help that they need to heal their own troubled souls. The advocacy continues until we recognise that GBV runs counter to national development.
*The names used in this article have been changed.
Dr Zoe Simpson is the executive director of the WCJF.