- For almost 25 years the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation (WCJF) has been quietly going above and beyond the call of duty, not only assisting pregnant teenagers through its programme for adolescent mothers, but also following up the progress of the babies to as far as secondary education.
- Executive Director of the Women's Centre, Beryl Weir, tells JIS News that the Centre's core programme, is to facilitate
- This has resulted in their supreme success, whereby, out of the approximately 26,000 young women who have been helped, the rate at which they become pregnant the second time around is only 1.4 per cent - a world record among similar programmes.
For almost 25 years the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation (WCJF) has been quietly going above and beyond the call of duty, not only assisting pregnant teenagers through its programme for adolescent mothers, but also following up the progress of the babies to as far as secondary education. Executive Director of the Women’s Centre, Beryl Weir, tells JIS News that the Centre’s core programme, is to facilitate “continued education for girls under 17, who become pregnant whilst attending school.” This has resulted in their supreme success, whereby, out of the approximately 26,000 young women who have been helped, the rate at which they become pregnant the second time around is only 1.4 per cent – a world record among similar programmes. “We follow the girls through for at least two years, during secondary school,” Mrs. Weir points out. Importantly, the staff provides emotional support, as the girls are sometimes stigmatized on their return to the normal school system. “When they go back to school, many of them encounter peer pressure in a different way, in that they are recognized by other students and their peers, as girls who have had a baby. And sometimes they don’t know how to deal with it,” the Executive Director discloses. She says that even though the schools to which the girls have been admitted, may have guidance counsellors, they prefer to come back to the Women’s Centre, because of the relationship that has developed over the period of their stay – usually two or three school terms.
The Centre also helps the girls financially, after they leave. This includes “assisting them with their uniforms and school books, especially when they reach tertiary level,” Mrs. Weir points out. “We have to find money to help buy some of the other miscellaneous items they may need,” she further adds. The Executive Director reflects with pride on the girls who have stayed the course, completing secondary education, and then seeking to go to teacher’s college, nursing school or university. “If we cannot find the money,” she says passionately, “we…stand security for the student loan. But we have to assist them.” Not only does the Women’s Centre act as a parent to the adolescent mother, but also as a grandparent to her baby. Mrs. Weir explains, “It [assistance] may not be for them [the girls] themselves, but when that child is going to school.” In fact, there is even a particular case where the Centre assisted the ‘baby’, who was attending high school at the time. Sometimes also, she reveals, the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation helps to seek employment for the young mother and even the young father. The father of the baby is also invited to undergo counselling at the Centre.
In addition to these measures, follow-up includes ensuring that the babies receive the requisite immunizations and medical check-ups. The approach to putting the girls on the right path is a holistic one, featuring counselling, academic instruction and skills training. The physical needs of the teen mothers are also taken into consideration. Each day that the girls turn up for classes, they are given breakfast, a cooked lunch, an afternoon snack, and drinks in the morning and evening. The counselling, referred to as developmental counselling, is geared toward changing attitude and behaviour. “We have to deal with the issue of menstruation and pregnancy – although they are pregnant,” Mrs. Weir notes. “We have to deal with values and attitudes, and the whole issue of the empowerment of women,” she stresses.
The teen mothers also receive counselling on how to deal with abuse, time management and financial management. “In other words we improve their value system and improve their self-esteem, because they usually come with low self-esteem,” she points out. Further, the young parents receive training in parenting skills. “Parenting is a very important part,” she emphasizes. At the Centres, the young mothers learn to care for the baby, and how to bond with them. “And they have to take their babies with them. We must see that baby,” Mrs. Weir insists.
This is facilitated by the fact that there is a day care centre attached to each of the seven Women’s Centres across the island. The students continue their education at the Centre for at least one term after having the baby. She adds that there is also a great deal of emphasis on the use of contraceptives. “It’s a very important part of what we do,” she tells JIS News. “The girls must use a method of contraceptive when they are going back to school.we are protecting them against themselves.”
She further explains, that insisting that the girls use contraceptives is not tantamount to saying that they must have sex. “Abstinence is the best contraceptive,” she states, adding, “use a contraceptive to prevent pregnancy and STI/HIV”.
This emphasis is crucial, she says, as the Centre’s goal is to help the young ladies to continue their education and therefore to prevent a second pregnancy. “So we have to teach them about the methods, and they have to use a method before they go back [to school].”In terms of academic instruction, the Women’s Centre covers a number of subject areas. These include English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Biology, Principles of Business and Accounts. Information Technology was added recently.
In addition to the seven Women’s Centres, there are also nine outreach stations across the island. An outreach station is a satellite location, where the staff visits the girls. This usually takes the form of meetings at health centres or at a church hall.
The Centres are located on Trafalgar Road in Kingston; Peter Pan Avenue in Montego Bay; Patrick Road in Mandeville; King Street in Port Antonio, Seville in St. Ann’s Bay; Llandilo in Savanna-la-mar and Monk Street in Spanish Town. The outreach stations are located at St. Margaret’s Church and Jones Town Baptist in Kingston; Morant Bay in St. Thomas; Junction and Maggotty in St. Elizabeth; Denbigh in Clarendon; Annotto Bay in Port Antonio; Albert Town, Trelawny and Port Antonio, Portland. There is also a skills training site on Grayden Avenue, in the Hagley Park Road area in Kingston, where girls receive instruction in cosmetology and baking. “In any given year in the programme,” Mrs. Weir says, “we have approximately 1,500 [students] across the island”. In 2002, however, the figure dropped to just over 1,300 participants. The Kingston Centre has the highest enrolment, the Executive Director discloses, as it was the first centre to be established and also functions as a CXC exam centre. Also, she adds, girls from St. Catherine and St. Thomas, travel to Kingston, to attend classes. “Kingston [centre] sometimes has over 80 to 100 girls on register each term,” she notes.
The daily operation of the Centres is a costly affair. The Women’s Centre Foundation of Jamaica, which now falls under the Ministry of Development, receives support from the Government. “We are thankful to the Government of Jamaica,” the Executive Director notes, while adding that the Centres also do “a lot of fundraising to help out with the other things that we want to do for the girls.” Each Centre, she says, must have one fundraising activity per term. The institution has also been the beneficiary of many gifts, private sector involvement and volunteerism. “We have volunteers from the US Peace Corps, Mennonite Church, and local volunteers,” Mrs. Weir explains. Many of the local volunteers, she says, are students from the University of Technology, who do some community service. “We’re grateful that the person that is teaching Information Technology to our CXC group, is one of those persons,” she notes with satisfaction. Mrs. Weir is also thankful to the Marie Schlei Verein Foundation from Germany, which contributed four new computers to the Centre last year, hence the introduction of the Information Technology programme.
Other organizations, which have been of assistance, include Nutribun and Food For the Poor. The Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs have built day care nurseries for the Centres, and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce has made donations to the organization’s operations. “And of course local businesses across the island have also assisted greatly, wherever our centres are,” Mrs. Weir adds. She also has high praises for the dedicated and hardworking staff at the Centres across the island. The programme for adolescent mothers is a big job, but as Mrs. Beryl Weir tells JIS News, it is most gratifying. The children who were born when operations began “are now aged 24,” she points out. “Sometime last year we had a past student who came in and her daughter was at university. You know,” she adds warmly, “it’s that kind of thing that is heartening.”