Let’s Talk Sex

Jamaica is a strange place. We are simultaneously hypersexualized and sexually repressed. We have a very sexual culture but we’re at the same time afraid to talk about sex. As I said, strange place.

I recently wrote about some of the issues plaguing our young people in my post “Child Month: Rhetoric or Real Commitment?” and I would like to continue that conversation with a focus on sex and how we are shirking our responsibilities to our children and youth.

Our teenagers are having sex. Ideally we wish they weren’t but they are. I imagine it is easier for us to bury our heads in the proverbial sand and pretend young people are saintly pilgrims of God who are waiting for marriage. Nonetheless, we absolutely must avoid the easy path in the best interest of our youth. The responsible thing to do is tackle the problems head on, regardless of how uncomfortable they make us.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the facts objectively and have a frank discussion about where we are falling short and what we must do in order to fix the situation at hand.

The 2008 Reproductive Health Survey published by the National Family Planning Board (NFPB) found that the mean age of sexual initiation for the 15 – 19 age group was 13.9 for boys and 15.3 for girls. The 2005 Jamaica Youth Risk and Resilience Behaviour survey also found that 12.8% of adolescents 10 – 15 reported that they had sexual intercourse. This is cause for concern for a number of reasons. Are these young people equipped with the information and tools to protect themselves if they are indeed engaging in sexual activities?

There is a raging debate going on about whether or not condoms should be made available in schools. While I empathize with the people who are against it, as I too believe young people should wait until they are physically, emotionally and financially able to take on the responsibilities that come with being sexually active, it would be remiss of me to not consider the fact that taking such a position is likely to do more harm than good. No amount of preaching and moral crusading will change the fact that many young people are having sex and need to protect themselves.

Along with not providing condoms, we have also been neglecting to teach children about the effects and consequences of sexual activity as well as other pertinent information to their successful development into conscientious and productive adults. The ongoing melee surrounding the HFLE curriculum proves how uncommitted we truly are to aiding and facilitating the development of our young people. Our discomfort with sex and sexuality cannot be reason enough to avoid teaching them important and valuable life skills (including information about drug use, sexual health, high-risk sexual behaviour and conflict resolution).

Children and young people have a right to effective sexual and reproductive health services. This includes making relevant resources and information available and accessible to them. Are we giving young people the information needed, such as those around sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV and AIDS, to make informed decisions about their sexual health? We are simply not doing enough.

We must begin to question the strategies we have been using to address sexual attitudes and behaviours where our young people are concerned, as they are clearly not working. Let us take the proposition to raise the age of consent from sixteen years old to eighteen, for example. While that sounds like a good idea in theory, it does not hold water when scrutinised more rigorously. What exactly are we trying to achieve and what are the consequences of doing this? For one, we will be effectively barring many young people who are already having sex and many who will become sexually active from the necessary sexual and reproductive health services they need. And then of course we will feign surprise when they become pregnant and/or contract sexually transmitted diseases. It is an incredibly frustrating and unproductive cycle.

The hour has long gone for us to move past the stage of wishing chastity on our youth to actually making policies and acting in a way that reflects the reality of their situation. It is the responsibility of duty bearers, including policymakers, teachers, health practitioners, religious leaders and all of us who claim to have their best interest at heart.


Child Month: Rhetoric or Real Commitment?

It is Child Month and we will of course be paying a lot of lip service to the importance of children and their development. You know, all those nice things about the children being our future and yaddy yaddy yadda. Things we are not actually doing much to ensure materialise.

This year, we have an apt theme “Children Safety and Security – Our Priority”, but I’m beginning to wonder if we are truly invested and committed to the welfare of our children. Stop for a second and think about all the gruesome stories of children being raped, molested and/or murdered over the last month. Now ask yourself what future.

What future will our children have when we keep damaging them in so many ways? We are physically violent towards them, we abuse them emotionally and psychologically, we deny them basic rights, and the list goes on.

We have a plethora of ministries, agencies and organisations that deal with children and youth issues including, but not limited to, the Ministry of Youth & Culture, Child Development Agency (CDA), Office of the Children’s Registry (OCR), Office of Children’s Advocate (OCA) and Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA), yet we are thus far unable to substantially curb the maltreatment of the most vulnerable in our society. We obviously need to revisit the roles, functions and ability of these entities to protect and seek justice for our children and youth.

A knowledge, attitude, practices and behaviour (KAPB) study (2014) regarding child maltreatment commissioned by the OCR and UNICEF found that “eighty two percent (82%) of the children sample[d] reported that they have experienced at least one incident of child maltreatment in the past three months.” This accounted for, among other things, physical and emotional (including being shouted at and name-calling) abuse by adults. Additionally, 46% of the five hundred (500) children studied indicated that they had experienced or witnessed physical abuse in the past 3 months. These are alarming figures. It is clear that the nation’s children are in trouble.

The Jamaica Observer reported in January of this year that “In an opening statement to the committee [United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland], Hanna said that the Government of Jamaica has “intensified strides in advancing the rights of the child to access to education, protection against violence and ensuring that those who come in conflict with the law are given equal rights and justice consistent with the provision of the UN convention on the Rights of the Child”.” Have we really Minister Hanna? In light of the continued violence against our children can we really stand by this barefaced lie statement? What exactly have we done to protect them against the many different forms of abuse and violence at the hands of parents and other relatives, teachers, the state, religious leaders and other adults? I have not seen the fruits of that labour to be frank.

What are our leaders actually doing? Organising marches. Yes, you read that right. On Saturday Angela Brown-Burke, Senator and Mayor of the Kingston & St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) organised a march in which scores of our leaders and the general public took a stance against child abuse, in light of the recent flare up of violence against children. Marches are great – they raise awareness and demonstrate the need for collective effort and action – however, the mandate of our leaders does not include parading their helplessness as if they do not have a sworn duty to protect children and the general population. Our leaders, both elected and appointed officials, should do their jobs of making and enforcing laws and policies and leave citizens to organise marches and pray for divine intervention.

Additionally, let us not pretend that all blame is on our leaders. As a people we have a hand to play in this malady. We are collectively failing our children. How many of us call the relevant authorities when we see a child in danger? Whether from severe beating at the hands of their parents/guardians, when we know they are being violated, sexually and otherwise, by family members, on becoming aware of adults taking advantage of their vulnerabilities etc. We have all become so detached from our collective responsibility that we turn a blind eye when we should be acting.

This child month, and moving forward, let us do more than say pretty things and actually make a commitment to improving the lives of our children in whatever way we can. That may range from simply hugging a child to reporting maltreatment of children and a host of other meaningful things in between. Must we wait for another child to be violated, damaged or killed to act? We can and must do better for our little ones.