By Jaevion Nelson
IT IS extremely difficult to accept there are so many Jamaicans who are convinced that denying adolescent girls their right to education is the most effective way of dealing with teen pregnancy.
Thankfully, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith has tabled a motion to amend Section 31 of the Regulations to the Education Act, because it "compels the expulsion from school of adolescent girls who become pregnant, but does not mandate their re-admission to the formal education system". This is crucial as we need to "ensure that every Jamaican girl, regardless of circumstance, is entitled to completion of her formal education at the secondary level".
Seemingly, Jamaicans believe it is efficacious to expel pregnant girls though we provide few options for continued learning. Popular support for this is an excruciating reminder that we lack understanding of and empathy for the plight and complexities of the poor, the vulnerable, and women. How can we be comfortable with the fact that we are banishing our children to a life of doom for a mistake? Why are we using pregnant girls as scapegoats to teach 'the consequences of sin' to their peers instead of reforming the social and educational systems to facilitate their needs?
sex doesn't mean immorality
It is important that we accept that students who are sexually active are by no means indicating education is not a priority. The reasons for our - both children and adults - sexual activity are varied not because we are 'immoral'. As my colleague Brandon Allwood, the chief advocate at Help JA Children (an advocacy outfit) has said, "as long as morality is used as a basis for decisions, it will always be used as a means to oppress someone, somewhere".
The practice of expelling pregnant adolescent girls has not yielded the desired result. Live births among girls 10-19 years have remained at around 20 per cent over the last decade. Showing empathy and making accommodations for pregnant girls in our school system is not an endorsement of early sexual initiation and teenage pregnancy. It simply means we care about what happens to the people around us.
Inequality, expulsion costly
I wonder if those who support this law realise the enormous social and economic cost implications it has on our Budget. Isn't it more expensive for you the taxpayer who will have to cater to one more government dependent?
According to data produced by the Caribbean Community Commission on Youth Development in 2010, teen pregnancy costs us about US$12.5 million or 1.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The cost of not completing primary school is about 0.78 per cent of GDP, but if all children complete their primary education, GDP would increase by one per cent. Further, with full secondary enrolment, the Jamaican economy would grow by 1.37 per cent, and by 5.47 per cent with a 30 per cent enrolment at the tertiary level.
It is incumbent on us to understand how costly some of our age-old ideologies and practices are as "wi ban wi belly fi di hard times". Teen pregnancy is also an economic problem, not just taxes and balance of payments. It is more detrimental to protect our misguided morals than allowing adolescent mothers to enjoy their right to an education. If we continue like this, we are perpetuating the cycle of poverty and will have more children at traffic lights, more families hungry; more children who will need to be on PATH, more juvenile delinquents, more children in need of care and protection, and the list goes on.
It is so sad that the poor (female) must always suffer. Wealthy children are having sex too, but they have privileges to protect them. They can afford and/or have easier access to condoms, for example. Expulsion from school for getting pregnant disproportionately affects the poor and traps us in poverty. Wealthier children can afford safe abortion services in Jamaica or travel to the United States of America to get it done. There are some who aren't wealthy, but they have access to people and privileges that they can use to be readmitted in school. The vast majority of Jamaican girls do not. If poor people would only realise how the system is designed to maintain their marginalised class position and begin to challenge it.
Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, human rights and HIV Advocate. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.