The Gleaner newspaper is grateful to the Reverend Eniola Davis and high-school principal Ruel Reid for their unvarnished bits of truth-telling this week, which, hopefully, will help to reignite, and deepen, the necessary discussion on reproductive health issues in Jamaica.
That debate will, hopefully, end with an embrace, as policy, of the recent suggestion by Dr. Valerie Knight, the chairman of the National Family Planning Board, for the distribution of condoms in schools. Perhaps, too, we should think of offering other forms of reproductive health services to students.
Education is the best tool for breaking a society’s cycle of poverty. Early childbearing is an inhibitor to improved education, especially among women.
Despite the improvement of recent decades, Jamaica still suffers from these two constraints to economic advance: poor education and early childbearing among a significant portion of its young women.
It is these issues that Reid, the headmaster of Jamaica College, addressed in part, in a speech to the Paediatric Association of Jamaica.
Said Reid: “We can’t continue this cycle where people feel it’s the norm to have children in any kind of environment … . That is a huge factor of what is stifling educational output in Jamaica.”
Politicians, he argued, have been afraid to tell people that they must not have children “if [they] can’t afford it”.
Davis, of the United Church of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, practically applies that message. He urges poorer and “not-ready” Jamaicans to use contraceptives, including condoms and the morning-after pill. This argument appreciates a fundamental fact: The message of abstinence is, of itself, not enough.
And that was the larger point being made by Knight in her call for the distribution of condoms in schools, for which she was rounded on by faith-based, abstinence-minded ideologues, policymakers included.
While the fact that 60 per cent of one grade of a Kingston school, as highlighted by Dr Knight, are parents may be unusual, the activity by which this was possible — unprotected sex — is not unfamiliar to Jamaican young people. Indeed, it is estimated that around three-quarters of those in the 15-19 age group are sexually active. Boys have their first sexual encounter somewhere between ages 13 and 14 while the girls start having sex at about 14 or 15.
Further, the fertility rate of nearly 80 per 1,000 for Jamaican girls in the 15-19 age group is among the highest in the Caribbean. Most of these pregnancies are unplanned.
These are realities with which Jamaican society and policymakers must contend. And this newspaper says practicality.
We believe that a values-based message, including the worth of delaying sex, should be part of the mix. But we also appreciate that, in our circumstance, and based on the empirical evidence nationally and globally, there is need to go beyond the call for sexual abstinence.
That argument should be buttressed by providing young people who, regardless, will engage in sex, with the tools to negotiate the process, including full information about sexual and reproductive health.
Access to contraceptives is among the tools. This would also necessitate the alignment of the age of consent and the age at which young people can access reproductive health services.
There is also a public-health value from young people engaging in safe sex.