JIS News

At age 14 when most girls are taken up with music, fashion and friends, Simone had to be concerned about taking care of her new-born baby. A child herself, she was at her wits end when she found out she was pregnant as all she could visualise was failure. Today, 14 years later, Simone has realised her career dream and has established a firm foundation for herself and her child.
Simone believes this would not have been possible were it not for the Women Centre of Jamaica Foundation programme for pregnant teenagers.
According to statistics, Simone is just one of the many success stories coming out of the programme.Beryl Weir, Executive Director of the Women Centre informs JIS News that participants of the programme can be found in almost all professions at home and overseas. In addition, she notes, participants usually do not have a second pregnancy until they have completed their secondary level education and are in a better position to take care of themselves and their family.
The Women Centre of Jamaica Foundation was first established at 42 Trafalgar Road in 1978 as the Women Centre Programme for Adolescent Mothers. Since then the programme has expanded to include seven main centres and six outreach centres island-wide. Mrs. Weir explains that the programme is mandated to provide continuing education for pregnant schoolgirls under the age of 17.
The programme was initiated by the Government of Jamaica, Mrs. Weir further explains, when the need was recognised for some intervention due to the high number of teen mothers who were dropping out of school as a result of pregnancy. “We presently operate under the Ministry of Local Government, Community Development and Sport and in 1991 we became a limited liability company hence the name, the Women Centre of Jamaica Foundation. Prior to that we were known as the programme for adolescent mothers,” Mrs. Weir informs.
But how exactly does the programme work? Mrs. Weir says first the girls are referred to the programme by guidance counsellors and teachers from their respective schools, pre-and post natal clinics, private doctors, word of mouth and past students who have been through the programme and had made a success of their lives.
One of the main criteria for admission is that the girl must be attending school at the time of the pregnancy and should be living at home with a parent or guardian. “We require her to visit the nearest centre with her school report, birth certificate, a registration fee of $1,000 as well as accompanied by the parent or guardian. We use this fee as an incentive to get the girls to understand that not every thing in life is free and they need to contribute something,” Mrs. Weir says, adding that this fee however goes toward assisting in buying stationery that the girls use while at the centre.
The programme is not residential, hence the girls return to their homes at the end of each school day, which is from Monday to Thursday every week. There is however one exception to this rule as a small group of girls who are sitting CXC exams are allowed to stay at the Kingston centre Monday to Friday but must go home on weekends.
“These are the girls who are being coached towards sitting their CXC examinations each year. We have five rural centres and so you can imagine a girl who lives in say St. James travelling from Montego Bay to Kingston everyday.that would be difficult and we cannot afford to pay teachers to tutor one student at each centre,” Mrs. Weir explains.
These girls stay at a small dormitory on premises with a housemother, but that is the only residential aspect of the programme. In addition day care is provided for the babies of all the participants of the programme, while they are at classes throughout the day. The girls are however, required to go home to their families in the evenings. “When the baby is at the nursery, this gives the girl this little time to take her mind off baby and her mind is on lessons, but if she is breastfeeding she is permitted to leave the class to breastfeed her baby and at lunch time she has to interact with the baby which allows us to see the bonding process and to teach them some parenting skills. We cannot allow them to come into the programme and leave without knowing how to care for their babies and how to be parents,” Mrs. Weir emphasised.
The girl comes to the programme while she is pregnant and as such, Mrs. Weir says time is allotted for her to have her baby. “She is away for at least a month as long as the delivery was normal, then she must come back in the programme for at least a school term,” she informs JIS News. During that final term, the girl is now prepared to re-enter the school system. “The counselling we do throughout her stay at the centre is geared towards her total development.
Now the realisation hits that she is a parent as well as a student when she goes back to school, and there are certain behaviour patterns that are expected,” she says.
With even greater expectations on her shoulders the girl is required to behave as a student in school, according to Mrs. Weir who notes that “there is also peer pressure to endure when they get back to school because Jamaica is a small place and any school we place the girls somebody there is going to know they have a baby and so we have to teach them how to deal with that – not to fight and quarrel because somebody says they have a baby but gently accept what has happened and get on with their lives”.
The relationship with the guidance counsellors in the schools plays a very critical role in the girl’s reintegration into the regular school system. One of the problems faced by the girls once they return to school, is that they are sometimes at a disadvantage. “When we are placing them back in schools they do not normally go back to the school they are coming from so when they are placed they are at a disadvantage because it is learning in a new environment, getting used to new friends and readjusting to whole school situation,” Mrs. Weir explains.
As a result it is very important that the girls parents/parent plays a role in this process, especially since the girl is still considered to be a minor. One such major decision to be taken involves a suitable form of contraceptive that the girl will now have to be placed on as she prepares to leave the programme and re-enter the regular school system. “When the parent comes to the first interview which we call the intake interview, they sign a consent form for the girl to have contraceptive so after they have the baby we usually take them on that first visit to the regular six weeks post natal clinic where they get a contraceptive method, according to what the nurses and doctors at that clinic deem suitable,” Mrs. Weir points out.
The Women Centre while not deciding the method of contraceptive strongly recommends a method – that of the IUD – which unlike the pill does not have to be taken daily.
“The IUD is a method that allows them a certain amount of freedom especially since a majority of the girls are not living in a relationship where sexual activity is continuous, so the IUD is there as a protection against the inevitable,” she explains, adding that parents have to, however, give their consent for such a method.
With the girl now back in school the financial responsibility of taking care of the baby is usually undertaken by the parents. “We have to interview parents again before the girls get back into school because we have to ensure that the parents have this added financial responsibility of the baby,” she says.
“In many cases the father of the baby is not able – even if he is willing – to support the baby because he is unemployed so the parents are the primary persons who we work with and we have to ensure that they understand all the responsibility of the girl getting back into school, the support that the family need to give to her in terms of caring for her baby and giving her the encouragement to continue school for the next two years,” she elaborates.
The girls are not left on their own when they re-enter the school system Mrs. Weir says, as the Centre follows through as much as is reasonably possible. “The girls either visit us regularly or we visit the schools and find out how they are doing.
The girls are also encouraged to come back to us if they are having any problems. The peer pressure may be getting to them or they may feel discouraged sometimes because caring for a baby and going to school is really difficult and they may just need to come back to the Women’s Centre to the counsellor with whom they had developed that confidence in over time to talk about their problems,” she informs.
Mrs. Weir had high praises for ex-participants of the programmes who have made the programme, the success it is. “I lift my hats off to these girls – the ones who come in the programme, stay in the programme to the end and are placed back into school they are really ready and want to go back to school. They recognised that they have made a mistake which had they not had the second chance it would mean that they would not be able to achieve their educational goals. When they get back to school they surprise us all the time,” Mrs. Weir says.
An obviously proud Mrs. Weir notes that the academic achievement of some girls once placed back into school is excellent. “We have girls who place at school for the first term and they are made class monitors. We have girls who become prefects in their schools and because of what had happened to them they are excellent role models and sometimes spend time counselling their peers or younger students in the school,” says Mrs. Weir.
Girls who are unable to be reintegrated into the secondary school system are placed in skills training at the centre. “It is not just the girls who are academically bright but you have girls who are good at skills, they have worked hard within their special fields and some of them are now owners of their own small businesses because of the skills that they learn,” she says.
While the programme is reaping such great rewards, there are critics who believe the Women Centre programme is encouraging teenagers to get pregnant. However, says Mrs. Weir, such speculation is unfounded, “It is definitely not encouraging girls to become pregnant. The majority of girls attending schools know nothing about the Women Centre, they are not aware of the programme. If they hear it, it is like something else or somebody else it belong to. It is not until they find themselves pregnant and are referred here,” she explains.
She points out that research have shown that the programme is helping girls in their educational and development process and that these girls are an integral part of nation building. “When they come into the programme we counsel them towards their total self development. Low self-esteem may have been some of the factors that send them into relationships that cause them to become pregnant. Before the girl is placed back into school she must prove to us in this programme that her self-esteem is built.she is confident.she can go there and she can perform,” she stresses.
She further notes that there are girls who are barely functional in literacy and numeracy when they enter the programme. However, there is a special programme that is conducted to increase their literacy level to a functional standard before they are placed back in school. “If we do otherwise we are still placing them back at a disadvantage meaning that they are still not going to achieve and they are going to drop out of school so what we are actually doing is we are helping these girls to achieve and we have seen the success,” she says.
Mrs. Weir points to a research done in 1995 that indicates that at least 7 per cent of the participants go on to tertiary level education. “If this programme did not exist can you imagine what would happen to these girls?” she questioned. To date the centres island wide have also assisted over 32,000 girls to achieve educational and vocational goals over the 27 years of operation.
The centres 2004 Annual Report stated that at the end of the year some 532 girls were returned to the formal school system, while a total of 20 girls sat the CXC examinations.
In addition to the programme for pregnant teenagers, the Ministry currently operates a ‘Young Men at Risk Programme’, which saw some 709 young men ages 17-25 receiving assistance in academic instructions, skill training, reproductive health counselling and job placement. Persons interested in getting information on any of the centres or outreach centres across the island may call 929-7608.