Columns

Poor, pregnant and homeless

Mark Wignall

Sunday, August 26, 2012    

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If the sex act is man's ultimate expression of pleasure, for the destitute it is not only free admission to carnal delights but, as the babies start popping out one after the other in a seemingly endless stream, it is also a passport to hell.

I say this against the background of the recent eviction of squatters from a Duke Street premises where one woman had eight children and she was pregnant with the ninth. Quite apart from the fact of her dire situation of homelessness, it would seem to me that even a rich woman with her well-heeled husband would not necessarily grab at the chance to spend the rest of her life raising nine children — not in these perilous times of social and economic uncertainty.

To me, that woman could not just be purely irresponsible to be saddling herself with hardship piled upon calamity. Could it be ignorance or a cultural misunderstanding of her role as a woman? For me, one word governs it all — Tragedy.

The man, responsible or not, gets to leave after sex, after pregnancy and after childbirth. Of course, the responsible man would do all in his power to ensure that his offspring and the woman do not suffer as a result. The irresponsible man walks away and, in any event, that sort of man is usually a serial breeder with other women all over the island suffering the same fate.

Take for example a man who leaves from Westmoreland to work on a construction site in Stony Hill. For the six months that he is there he meets three women from the area and engages in unprotected sex with them. The women know him as Bill. His surname is unimportant, and for the time that he is there, he shares a part of his income with them.

The project ends and Bill returns to Westmoreland. Two of the women are pregnant. How likely is it that Bill, with no surname and a changed SIM card for his cellphone, will return to his 'scene of the crime' at Stony Hill? So, in time we have two more fatherless children.

At a time in the 1950s when the rural areas of Jamaica were physically and socially isolated from the great urban centre of Kingston, households in the country areas had huge families, sometimes as much as 12 children.

That was a time when farming was taken much more seriously than it is now and very few people could make the claim that hunger was their constant companion. Yes, they were poor and in some cases uneducated, but the bounty of the land was their saviour.

As those fleeing the country areas flocked to the city, many dreams were dashed and the surest manifestation of that were the many ghetto communities which sprang up in Kingston and on the periphery of the parish. There, pregnancy and childrearing for the desperately poor were a hazardous reality.

Teenage and multiple pregnancies were the norm in these ghettos and, unlike in the rural areas, it was much easier for youngsters to make the graduation to criminality as a tool of survival. Politicians saw the many votes in these densely packed communities.

To be fair, even though the politicians used the poor to secure perpetual voting, the poor state of housing in these areas made it top priority that new housing solutions be found. Riven with teen pregnancies and high rates of crime, the sub-cultural flaws of the ghetto transferred their ugly faces to the new housing blocks as high rates of unemployment dictated the continued lifestyle of sex and predation by way of the gun.

A third of the nation are squatters

If there is any one factor that drives the idea that we have little to be proud of in our 50th year of political Independence, it is the accepted fact that about a million of the population are either living on other people's properties illegally or on Government lands. In other words, squatting.

Certainly this has to mean that a link with our post-slavery period has yet to be socially and economically consolidated. What else can explain such a sad state of affairs except that these people are from households or communities where quality education over many generations was never seen as high on the agenda of items. Instead, they were subjected to poor education, inadequate vocational training, poor employment prospects, and rampant breeding, with many of the communities prone to high rates of crime.

Add to the mix that a politician has never seen a ghetto or a squatter community that he never liked. Pave a road or two through it, arrange for electricity supply and water and, voila! the votes from the grateful, somewhat gullible and socially captive residents are guaranteed.

With those conditions present, and not being alleviated by massive new investments, a radical educational and vocational push, and 7-10 per cent growth per annum for the next decade, the idea that under Vision 2030 Jamaica will be First World by the year 2030 is comical in the extreme. It seems to be nothing more than a policymaker's paper dream or a politician's annual cup of treacle.

A number of factors immediately spring to life in evictions of these types. First, an eviction has to be one of the most traumatic life experiences. Second, the owner has rights of possession under the law and he/she has a legal right to have his/her property free from trespassers and squatters.

Third, in a heartless universe, the children would suffer for the misdeeds and irresponsibility of their parents. In a world where compassion exists, it has to be accepted that children did not arrive in the world by their doing. In such a situation, children cannot remain on the streets without shelter.

How do we address the irresponsibility of a woman and her menfolk who produce nine children in abject poverty? There is no less sex in well-to-do households than there is in a gully bank community, but it seems that nature has a crude and perverse sense of humour.

The poor has sex and it produces seven children. The middle class has sex and it produces two children. Another reality is that Jamaica's tax base is appallingly low. When a poor mother with no male support finds herself with nine mouths to feed, the first reality she will face quite early is that in the competition between eating a meal and sending the child to school, eating will always win.

In a perfect universe, she would not be poor, and funds would be readily available for food, shelter and education of the children.

With the low tax base, each additional poor child will have to be educated and fed in school feeding programmes. The health system also comes in for added pressure as free health care for an increasing number of people brings it close to breaking under the heavy load.

In terms of criminality, it costs $750,000 per year to feed and house a prisoner locked up for a crime in our system. In many instances, the prisoner gives back nothing as the rehabilitation process suffers under the strain of an absence of resources.

How does one deal with the irresponsibility of such parents. The last time I checked, it was still legal to have unprotected sex. It was still legal for a woman to have as many children as possible.

Even if it should be considered that a fairly young woman steeped in poverty and has already had five children at age 30 ought to ponder the possibility of tying-off her tubes, it would be socially disastrous if such a stipulation is written into law.

The big question would be, who gets to be the great moraliser and, at what stage does it segue to another social battle of 'we' versus 'them'?

We can accept that those in destitution, while they ought to enjoy the same freedoms as those at the mountaintop of their existence, the very lack of resources will make it that much more difficult for the poor to find any 'enjoy' factor in daily life.

But, if we cannot continue in this same vein, what are the paths to take, and what do we do about the displaced children? At our 50th it is obvious that the nation is in a crisis and, after the partying, there are really no great stories to be told of how our political leaders of the past inspired us and made us advance far ahead of 1962.

observemark@gmail.com

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