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Unleash our potential - youth advocate

Published:Thursday | November 26, 2015 | 12:00 AMRoss Sheil
Melissa Matthie: "They should ensure that they have a discussion with young people to ask what they really want for the future for other youngsters."

As the world marks Youth Month, The Sunday Gleaner, in association with the World Bank, presents a series looking at the challenges and triumphs of the next generation of Jamaicans.

Young Jamaicans are the most frequent victims of crime and, not surprisingly, also the most frequent perpetrators. This leads to significant stigma, especially for those young people from poorer communities.

But in place of that stigma now comes gradual recognition that from that same group could come the answer, as who would be better to provide empathy and advocate among their peers?

"I've been robbed at gunpoint. I just turned 18 and had everything taken away from me, and so you have no turning around from there. You have to be begging someone not to hurt you, and that fear continues," said 25-year-old Melissa Matthie, youth chairperson for the Manchester branch of the Jamaica Red Cross.

"Even though I've been through the violence-prevention training, which helps me to cope, I am always looking around," added Melissa.

Growing up in a community where she was confronted by violence outside and gender bias inside the home, Melissa is all too familiar with what she advocates.


Controlling relationship


She found herself in a relationship where she was being controlled by her boyfriend, replicating what her mother went through.

"Some of my youth volunteers live in communities that are very volatile and don't make decisions for themselves, the decisions are imposed upon them. They cannot leave the community if they are not educated or lack skills; or have family to take them out or who really, really cares," said Melissa.

It was her lobbying that led to a Red Cross programme, not initially planned to include Manchester, to be rolled out in the parish.

That programme seeks to channel youths into being peer educators in schools to teach other students to rethink and find alternatives to interpersonal violence.

"We have seen young persons change their attitude; we had some boys who every day skull class (play truant), but after this programme they can see within themselves.

"We have a values and attitudes game with them, we play to see how they value themselves, and at the end they look at the result and say this is not how I see myself! And we can tell them what they will become if their attitude does not change, and the impact in general has been overwhelming but we could have done much more."


Stalled programme


Unfortunately, that programme has stalled due to a lack of resources, and Melissa admits frustration at the formal approach often taken by the Government which is more centred around teachers or facilitators rather than students and participants sharing experiences. Her recommendation for future violence-prevention initiatives is clear.

"They should ensure that they have a discussion with young people to ask what they really want for the future for other youngsters. Young people will not only give answers but solutions to the problems that they're experiencing."

- The World Bank's Next GENDERation Initiative has been working to help young people challenge gender stereotypes that lead to violent behaviour. It is a partnership between the ministries of Education, Youth and Culture, and National Security, the Bureau of Women's Affairs, the Planning Institute of Jamaica, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.