ADOLESCENT mothers who are part of the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation programme wear a uniform that makes them easily identifiable. However, even without the uniforms, their protruding abdomens or infants in hand, combined with their unmistakably youthful features, are immediate giveaways — they are young and pregnant.
This simple fact is enough to give passers-by ammunition to lash out at them, a group of teen mothers told the Jamaica Observer over lunch last week Wednesday.
“People have a lot to say, especially adults,” a student of the Spanish Town Women's Centre shared. “You don't have to say anything, you don't have to be in your uniform. They will just see you and pass bad remarks.”
Another teenage mother shared an encounter she had with a police officer while on her way to a clinic for a prenatal check-up.
“A police officer once told me that I am worthless, and if him ever catch fi him daughter in my situation…” recounted the student. “I was walking to the clinic and my belly was really big, and he was driving past me and made that comment.”
The students also shared how they are verbally abused by bus operators, who constantly remind them when they board public transportation that they need to pay adult fares, since they are engaging in adult activities.
“Yuh a big woman now! You go take man! Make sure you have your fare!” the girls quoted the bus conductors as saying.
The women's centres operate like schools, where the young mothers and mothers-to-be continue their education to later be reintegrated into the formal school system, so the opening hours are similar to that of other schools in close proximity to them. As such, teen mothers sometimes encounter other teenagers who are attending high schools across the island.
“They are better than the adults,” one teen mom commented, and the others, who were being hosted by the Jamaica Observer at a luncheon ahead of Mother's Day, agreed.
“Some of them are kind, but some of them tend to be mean,” another shared. “They will pass remarks such as, 'I will never go there'.
“Some of them say, 'Me want belly, too!'” a third teenage mother chimed in.
“Yes, I was passing by some of them the other day and a girl said to her friend that she needs to go to her boyfriend to get a baby,” another student added.
Sheron Williams, who serves as the centre manager for Spanish Town Women's Centre, said: “One of the things we try to do as an organisation is build their self- esteem. Once that is built, it doesn't matter what anyone says to them, they are able to resist or respond without being aggressive.
“It works sometimes, but sometimes they tell them some really hurtful things, and as human beings their reactions are natural. Sometimes some of them come in crying about what people have said to them on the streets, and we just have to counsel them,” she lamented.
Though the girls don't usually respond to the comments they receive, both directly and indirectly during commute, they used the platform at the luncheon to send a message to those who look down on them as adolescent mothers.
“I want the adults out there to think of us as their children, and say for instance, it could have been their daughter, or their niece, or their cousin. Think of us as a family member, and think that maybe there are other reasons we got pregnant at such a young age. Just think of us as your own family and treat us like human beings, because it could happen to anybody, not just us,” one student said.
“Don't be in the same position that I found myself in,” was the simple message another teen mom had for other schoolchildren who make fun of them.
Williams said the girls who choose to attend the institution are the bravest among their peers, because they face shame and stigma every day, but still choose to continue their education despite the criticisms.
“Some girls are afraid to come [to the centre] because of the stigma that's attached. Some of them are not as strong as the girls that are coming now, to brave the streets,” she said.
She explained that admission into women's centres are optional, so the fear of being shamed publicly cause a lot of pre-teen and teen mothers to suffer in silence.
“As counsellors and centre managers we visit the clinics and look at the antenatal books, and based on the ages of the expectant mothers, we visit the homes and encourage them to come to the centre. Police officers refer them as well. The Child Protection and Family Services Agency, and even guidance counsellors from schools, and community members refer them to the centres,” Williams said.
After a student recounted how she was afraid to go to the centre because she knew that she would have been teased for wearing the uniform, and how she eventually overcame this fear, another student came to the school's defence.
“The uniform makes us look uniformed. It makes us look neater, and we are still students. It's not the end of the world. We are continuing our journey,” she said.
The young lady who had the encounter with the police officer shared how she would have wanted to handle the situation with the cop.
“I didn't say anything because I didn't want him to say anything further. I just kept walking. But in his case, I kept thinking that he is working with the Government. As police officers they say that they serve and protect, and that is not what he was doing that day. They should just try to not say stuff like that, because they don't know what happened to us. They don't know if we even have parents to guide us.
“He was saying what he would do if it was ever his daughter. I would want to ask him, 'What would happen if it really was your daughter?' Because I don't know what he would say,” she said.