Jamaican has seen almost 60,000 births to mothers under age 20 over the last decade.
A whopping total of 59,591 births to adolescents were recorded between 2009 and 2019, according to data provided by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (Statin). This number accounts for 16 per cent of total births within the period.
The years: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 saw the highest percentage of such occurrences with 17; 17.9; 18; 18; and 17 per cent, respectively.
In addition, the Jamaica Observer has learnt that some of the young mothers account for multiple births.
Dr O'Neil Ankle, principal at Jonathan Grant High School, told the Sunday Observer that prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic he counted more than 18 young women at his school who had already had a child.
“One of them already had two children. That's the same reason I was going on like that. I met with 18 of them and we talked and shared things. And these children are not dunce. They are bright,” he said.
Ankle was making reference to a virtual orientation session, that went viral last September, in which he was heard telling his young male students: “Two minute man unnu… put a block pon yuh penis and calm yuhself and concentrate pon the nine or five subjects that you're going to do and stop focus pon front.”
Ankle explained that his candid and passionate talk with the students was driven by the reality at the school — realities, he added, that affect students' studies.
Student mothers, he said, would ask: “Sir, can I go home?”
When he asks, “Why do you want to go home?” the students, he said, would respond: “Sir, the lady who is taking care of my child is leaving an mi don't have anybody to take care of my child.”
“What do I do? Tell the student she can't go? She has to go,” he said.
Ankle, however, told the Sunday Observer that from observation, schoolboys aren't solely responsible for impregnating their peers.
“While many of the students would've got pregnant courtesy of these young boys, many are done by adults, not schoolboys — adults 21 and upwards. Adults that are in jobs and not young boys. But if young boys are a part of the issue, it's going to come down to education and letting them understand the importance of education in its true sense and that to carry a child in this world is a responsible activity,” he said.
“And to take care of that child and manage education where you want to have your subjects and move on to university, those two things don't really walk in the same lane because you now have the responsibility to try and get an education and to take care of a mouth that you never really prepared for,” he added, noting that in most cases the fathers leave the young mothers to fend for themselves or drop out of school.
Former national director of Jamaica Youth for Christ (JYC), Reverend Herro Blair Jr told the Sunday Observer that the number of births to adolescents was alarming. He further reasoned that these births contribute to the “decline of Jamaica”.
“A vast majority of these children will be the boys that are standing on the roadside. A vast majority will be the children who have children. The worst thing happening in Jamaica right now is, one, our uncontrollable desire to allow the sexual culture to go the way it is going; and two, the fact that this large number of teenage pregnancies is contributing to the negative climate and the negative economy of our country,” said Blair Jr.
“When I was growing up, children went to church even if their parents didn't go to church. Now, a lot of those children are not even going to church. So, when I meet a boy in Olympic Gardens and he tells me that he's 15 years old and he's a gunman, I can understand because he has no sense of value.”
The lack of value for life, he reasoned, has to be addressed.
“You look at our gunmen today, just walking up in crowds and shooting up people, or just doing whatever they want. They've lost all sense of value for life. Spend time and money on making sure that the children — those being born today and those in primary school today — learn the life skill of conflict resolution, respect and value so that as they grow, the country itself can be a better place,” Blair Jr said.
But early pregnancy does not mean that all is lost, argued 31-year-old Petagay Pinnock, who became a mother at age 15. Today, she has five Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) subjects and is a scholarship recipient at University College of the Caribbean (UCC).
“My advice to teen mothers is to go right back to school… don't wait,” she said.
“There are places that are free or come with a small cost. I know it's hard and you might think there's no way to get back on track, but I can tell you there's always a way. You just have to be determined to succeed and you will. If I was as determined as I am now, I would have already achieved all I'm achieving now. So, take the step while you are young and be as driven, dedicated, and determined and all things will be possible,” she added.
Otisa Wilmoth, past head girl of Green Pond High School, also got pregnant during high school. With six grade ones in grade 11, Wilmoth was the top CSEC performer at Green Pond in 2020.
She hopes her success, despite her pregnancy, shows other young girls in a similar situation that it is not the end of the road.
“My words of advice are to never give up and they should believe in themselves and know that if they weren't strong, they would not have been able to survive child-birth. It's not the end of the road for them as there will always be trials and struggles, but we are mothers now and our children need us to pave the way for a better future for them,” she said.
“Being a teenaged mom means that it's not just you anymore; you have a young one looking up to you. They need to see that you are strong and that you are doing what's right,” Wilmoth stated.
She added that many teen moms get pregnant a second time because their families turn their backs on them.
“Don't let that stop you. People will always leave when things aren't in their interest or going their way anymore. Just know that a higher education is what's going to prove to the world that we are survivors, and one wrong judgement in life can't spoil our futures forever. We are going to continue to work hard and excel because we are not just living for ourselves, we are living for our child as well. I will never let anyone, or anything, stop me because my son is counting on me,” Wilmoth told the Sunday Observer.
However, Principal Ankle believes that there is need for guidance for youngsters, especially young men.
“I don't know where the fathers are who can help these young men to understand that listen, what is between your legs is not something that you throw all over the place. It's something that you manage under control. And I can't say it any plainer. It makes no sense I pretty up this. Boys getting these girls pregnant... adults getting these girls pregnant... soldiers are getting these girls pregnant... all pastors get involved in it too. I have seen some cases… trust me, I can write a book,” Ankle said.
“They believe that they can go around and become sperm donors because it's an image in our society. It's an image that we need to get rid of. They just believe they can go around and have children and move to the next girl — and it's something that I've been trying to get into the boys at Johnathan Grant. When you see me go on the way I went on, it's because I live it. I experience it yearly,” he said.
Startled by the data on pregnancy among adolescents, Reverend Stephen Smith, Baptist minister and guidance counsellor at Calabar High School, called for swift justice, especially for underaged girls who are impregnated.
“These figures are quite staggering. In fact, they are alarming. It speaks to what is happening in our society and what needs to be done as it relates to those who are responsible for impregnating those who are underage, according to the law. We need, as a nation, to allow the law where these things are concerned to have teeth,” he said.
Outside of that, he said: “The Church must continue to play its part through its teachings to help young people to understand that they should wait until they reach adulthood and have their careers clear before them, before they think of becoming parents.”