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Final Hurdle Removed for Jamaica’s Teen Moms Returning To School

On her walk to the bus stop, Shelly, 15, flips through the pages of her black and white notebook, occasionally looking away to memorize her notes. She has an information technology exam in less than an hour and caring for her one-year-old daughter, Shenova, has left her with little time to prepare. Life now seems all about her baby.

“Sometimes I can’t concentrate because my mind is just stuck on her – how she’s feeling, if she’s hungry, how is my mom going to help her – I just can’t live a normal life.”

Shelly doesn’t work. And with barely any financial assistance from her child’s 18-year-old father, the responsibility of paying for diapers, wipes and baby food has fallen on Shelly’s mother, who watches the neighbors’ small children to earn money. Even then, it’s tough.

“I give her Lasco (a powdered milk brand) because it’s affordable and sometimes I can’t even find the $125.00 (equivalent to $1.13 in USD) to purchase a Lasco,” Shelly says.

Shelly is one of about seven thousand girls under 19 in Jamaica who give birth every year. Like many others since 1978, she turned to the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation – a government agency that educates and counsels teen mothers during their pregnancies.

“They are more like a family,” she remembers. “The Women’s Centre is just so motivating.”

Shelly may not realize it, but she is lucky

Before 2013, most girls leaving the Women’s Centre and wanting to finish their education would be at the mercy of school principals, who could allow re-entry into their institutions at their own discretion. But under Jamaica’s National Policy for the Re-Integration of School-Aged Mothers into the Formal School System, supported by UNFPA, as of the school year in September, 2014, teen mothers like Shelly were guaranteed a spot.

“It’s no longer a negotiation for the girls. Their space is retained- not necessarily at the same school but a space is in the school system for them,” says Acting Executive Director of the Women’s Center, Zoe Simpson.

“These girls are people with a future. Their lives don’t come to an end because they get pregnant,” Jamaica’s Ministry of Education Deputy Chief Education Officer Fern McFarlane says. “We are obligated to see to it that they complete their education.”

With the reintegration policy, Jamaica is setting an example for others in the Caribbean, which aims to reduce adolescent pregnancy among English and Dutch speaking countries in the region by 20 percent in the next five years.

Already, the Women’s Centre of Jamaica’s Adolescent Mother’s Programme has been acknowledged by UNFPA as a “good practice” for helping slash the country’s rate of teen pregnancy in half by keeping girls in school and ensuring they’re placed on a family planning method.

Shelly chose an injectable contraceptive, although she says she plans to abstain from sex until she’s finished with school.

Luckily for her, child rearing hasn’t affected her grades negatively. She still maintains 80s and 90s in English, although mathematics remains a challenge. And even though she was worried about her information technology exam that morning because she had to care for Shenova the night before, she says she thinks the test went well.

Perhaps Shelly’s biggest test in life – that of motherhood – may have been premature. But she loves Shenova. And despite all the ups and downs, financial woes and not hanging out with friends after class, she’s determined to keep her baby and determined to stay in school.
 

“I plan to get a good education. I would like to be the one to help my child and my parents out of poverty,” she says.