Rudolph Brown/Chief Photographer
Women and girls march in support of the fight against HIV/AIDS on Constant Spring Road, St. Andrew, in 2004. According to a UNICEF report, there was "a continuing and disturbing trend of girls in the 10-19 age group, being three times at higher risk of infection than boys the same age. The same was found for girls in the 15-24 age group."
Tracey-Ann Wisdom, Sunday Gleaner Writer
The level of noise inside the first-form classroom was almost deafening. The students called across the room to each other; one girl carried on a loud conversation with another girl in the neighbouring room; and three girls near the door were openly paying attention to the senior schoolboys - who were also talking loudly - passing by. Only a small fraction of the class was focused on the young woman shouting above their voices.
"Who can tell me how you can catch HIV?" Kerrel McKay bellowed. A few hands on the right side of the room were raised, and the students each supplied a correct answer: by having unprotected sex, by an infected needle in intravenous drug use, infected blood transfusion and from mother to child.
Don't value themselves
Kerrel McKay, youth intervention coordinator in the Ministryof Health and two team members were conducting a revision session for their pilot high-school intervention programme in an inner-city school. McKay asked a few more questions, which were answered by the same group of students. Just then, two of the girls at the front of the classroom started fighting over one of the boys outside.
To the team members' shock, the boy and his friends entered the classroom and he took off his belt and proceeded to beat one of the girls, whom it is declared, is his 'woman'. She did not fight back. In fact, she did not protest, even when McKay led the group to the guidance counsellor's office.
"It's the same boy who just called them 'dutty gyal,'" McKay says, visibly upset. "This is the same reason why we are not reaching them. They don't value themselves, especially the girls."
She believes that this is one reason more and more of Jamaica's young people, especially girls, are contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
January-June 2006 facts and figures from the Ministry of Health show that HIV is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15-24 years. This is despite the fact that there are various programmes in place to inform them about HIV and other STIs.
Horrette Thomas, senior school guidance counsellor at St. Catherine High School, believes adolescents have sufficient knowledge about HIV and STIs. However, they often succumb to peer pressure or face other situations that put them at risk. "Students have been educated about these things since primary school," he says, "A few have home situations such as molestation, incest, stepfathers trying to fool around with the stepdaughters. Some parents also make their children into adults before time, and when they go out there, they want to do adult things."
McKay also explains that her intervention at the school faced several drawbacks, among them a high level of sexual activity among the students and the contrasting lessons the children are being taught in their homes and communities. "Some of them will say things like, 'Man fi beat dem woman,' and 'Man fi have more than one woman,' the whole issue of being a 'bad man," she says.
These attitudes all increase the adolescent's risk of contracting HIV and STIs.
According to the UNICEF report, 'Children - The Missing Face of AIDS: The Situation in Jamaica, between 2002 and 2004', there was "a continuing and disturbing trend of girls in the 10-19 age group, being three times at higher risk of infection than boys the same age. The same was found for girls in the 15-24 age group." In those three years, 59 young persons tested positive for HIV, 10 males and 49 females; and 203 AIDS cases were reported, with 61 young men and 142 young women contracting the disease.
Ministry of Health data also show that many young girls are having sexual relations with HIV-infected older men and at least 50 per cent report that their sexual partners are five-10 years older than they. In addition, they are also less likely to use condoms and their male partners are more likely than other men to be HIV-infected, owing to their increased likelihood of having multiple sexual partners.
The 2002 Reproductive Health Survey also showed that the average age of first sex for girls age 15-24 is 15.8 years, and for boys in the same age group, 13.5 years old.
Condom use was minimal in these relationship, with only 24.2 per cent of adolescents using a condom during every act of intercourse, a 35.6 per cent decline since 1997.
Despite these statistics, several teenagers display knowledge of how HIV is transmitted and how they can protect themselves. Richard Jones, a 15-year-old Kingston College student, says he is not currently sexually active, but when he chooses to have sex, he will use a condom. Two of his friends who also spoke with The Sunday Gleaner agree. Still, Thomas believes that government agencies could do more to inform parents. "If the parents were given a level of education, it would reinforce what [the children] learn at school. Their emphasis should now be on parents," he says.
McKay also says some parents need to be targeted. She recalls that her group has invited the parents of some of the students at the school to a separate discussion, and they were not alarmed by some of their children's' activities. However, some parents have ensured that their children learn about sex, STIs and appropriate sexual behaviour at home.
Lorna Green, a 47-year-old self-employed mother of five, says she told all her children "everything about life" because if she did not, someone else would. "Yu cyaa hide nothing from them these days," she says.
Paul Moore, a 38-year-old father of three, says he also talks to his daughters about sex. "We talk about pregnancy and so on," he says, "I tell dem to tek dem education first though. Dem appreciate the information."
Thomas also believes that schools need to change the way they talk to students about sex and STIs. He tells about one method he used to get the message across to a group of students at his school. "A couple years ago, there were some statistics that one in every 50 persons has HIV. It was a group of 45 students and I said to them, 'You know, if we get five more persons in here, I could say that one of you might have HIV?' They were shocked and frightened, but it got them to think," he says.
Thomas believes that if adolescents are made to look at HIV/AIDS in an 'it-could-be-me' manner, then behaviour change would follow.