A few years ago, while driving through Half-Way-Tree one afternoon, I observed a group of high school girls walking from school to the bus stop. I remember thinking, "Why are their uniform skirts so long they must be so hot?" The hems were down to their ankles in true maxi fashion. My curiosity got the better of me, so I stopped, and asked one of the young women about their uniform, commenting that when I was in school our tunic length was right below or on our knees. She told me the school had changed the dress code for their skirts to be longer to deter 'female lust' and other inappropriate advances and behaviours from men. I was confused.
Fast-forward to a headline that caught my attention earlier last week: 'Godfrey Stewart High firm on dress code policy'. The school had locked out students who breached the new school dress code and was adamant that skirts had to be "no more than five inches above the ankle to protect young girls from being molested and boys' pants must not be less than 16 inches in diameter". (Jamaica Observer, September 13, 2022)
As parents mounted roadblocks to protest against what they deemed the lack of information regarding the new changes, the principal, Emily Lawrence-Ricketts, denied the allegations and explained that the uniform conformity drive was to prevent several predators from molesting the young girls in taxis and buses. "What we are trying to do is use the uniform as a deterrent. When the uniforms are short [the predators] tend to touch the students [and] there has been a surge in molestation cases at the institution because of public transportation."
Last month, the Ministry of Education and Youth began a series of consultations on student dress and grooming to develop a policy for educational institutions that balances students' rights while complying with school rules. Minister Fayval Williams said that the policy framework was to "clarify the ministry's stance [on student dress and grooming] as it sought to reduce discriminatory practices in schools while addressing the need for discipline and the development of societal values".
The ministry's 2018 policy regarding student dress and grooming outlines that a school's uniform policy should serve essential functions in a school, namely:
• fosters the school identity and an atmosphere of allegiance, discipline, equality, and cohesion;
• allows children to learn in an environment which minimises the pressures which result from marking differences on the grounds of wealth and status;
• reduces the risk of bullying at school, which may arise where social pressures develops through peer expectations;
• promotes high standards of achievement in all aspects of a student's life, including attitudes and conduct.
• offers quality, durable clothing for school at a reasonable cost to parents who don't need to buy a variety of outfits for school;
• ensures students are dressed appropriately for school activities;
• promotes student safety through ease of identification on school excursions and while commuting to and from school; and
• prepares students for careers or entrepreneurial activities in which adherence to dress codes is required.
Additionally, the ministry strongly recommends that school boards ensure that the choice of uniform design, colour and fabric should be practical and economical, taking into account the ease of care and maintenance of the uniform; the suitability of the design of the uniform in accommodating varying body shapes; the country's tropical climate and the physical comfort of students and the age of the students and the level of the educational programme and range of activities undertaken by them; and the cost, durability, and availability of the proposed uniforms to ensure the best value for money for parents.
Regrettably child sexual abuse and exploitation is prevalent in countries of the world and has a significant impact on the health and well-being of children. Survey data indicates that worldwide one in five girls and one in 13 boys have been sexually abused or exploited before reaching the age of 18. Nine million adolescent girls aged 15-19 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts in the past year. (Action to End Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation: A Review of the Evidence UNICEF 2020)
According to the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) in Jamaica, 48.8 per cent of all sexually active females between 15 to 24 say they were coerced into having sex their first time. Moreover, 40 per cent say their first sexual experience was forced while they were under the age of consent, with the perpetrator being someone close to the victim — a family member, neighbour or authoritative figure in most cases. (Carolyn Gomes, CVC 2016)
Between January to June of this year, the National Children's Registry (NCR) received a total of 94,876 reports of abuse through its 211 toll-free line created for children. Neglect was the most dominant report, followed by reports of children displaying various behavioural issues. There were "4,055 reports of neglect, 3,899 of physical abuse; 2,869 for care and protection; 2,392 of physical abuse; and 2,106 of sexual abuse". (Jamaica Observer, September 12, 2022)
There are real systemic drivers where the risks of abuse meted out to our children are more or less likely. These stem from vulnerabilities at the levels of the child and family relationships, the influence of the community, peer relationships, State child safety, protection laws and regulations, and the existence and persistence of poverty and other adverse environmental effects experienced by a child.
Changing the system, not the length of a skirt, is what's critical to tackling the multilateral-dimensional causes and consequences of sexual and dark realities of child abuse in Jamaica. Furthermore, lengthening the size of a uniform skirt is a false sense of protection in a society in which children who are forced into their first sexual encounter say the abuser was a family member or a neighbour known to them. Therefore, the abuse is taking place in their immediate environment when they are out of their uniforms and parents and guardians may be missing it.
Therefore, our focus should be on investing in programmes that develop and improve partnerships to strengthen parent-child relationships with the school's psycho-social and other counselling support to address conflict resolution, anger management, and safety in the homes and community. We should also build values, courage, confidence, and self-esteem in a student so that they may make informed choices about their bodies and trending fashion norms.
As the Ministry of Education and schools grapple with protecting their students from sexually motivated and predatory behaviour, they must also acknowledge that approximately 65 per cent of Jamaican students are bullied at school and put in place support mechanisms for actively addressing this matter.
Protecting our children from all forms of abuse is everyone's responsibility and I empathise with our teachers and our principals at this time as they seek solutions. I stand ready to assist.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People’s National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.