Sports and empowerment bring 'rebirth' for Jamaican youth

By Mark Beach
May 20, 2011

When 15-year-old Lydia* realized she was pregnant, she was forced by Jamaican law to leave her high school in Kingston. Left with no way to continue her education, she was struggling to find a way forward for herself and her baby.

After enrolling in the Women's Centre of Jamaica, Lydia said she is cultivating a trait many people assume young pregnant girls don't have: ambition.

“I want to go back to school. I know there will be challenges – of course there will be! But I will be successful and I will take care of my baby.”

On Wednesday 18 May 2011, Lydia shared her story with participants in the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) - 1,000+ people from churches and communities across the globe - who visited local Jamaican programmes that promote peace and well-being.

In addition to the woman’s centre, some visited other programmes, including Whole Life Sports (WLS), an initiative that focuses on the role of sports in children's ethical and religious formation.

“Football is life in 90 minutes,” explained coach Sean Williams, WLS coordinator. “All the tension and pressure of life are there. But you also always have the possibility to win and learn that a defeat is not the end of everything.”

Williams estimated that approximately 80 per cent of children in Jamaica live without the support of a father or do not know their father. For some part of this fatherless generation, he said, coaches become a father figure.

“Team work makes dream work”

Although WLS is a non-denominational organization, it has an impact on Jamaica's Christian community. “We see that our work is also valuable for the churches. Many of the local churches send their children and young adults to our trainings and we offer our skills to train their leadership to multiply this initiative also in the daily life of the churches.”

Inspired by the motto “Team work makes dream work,” approximately 50 children take part in the organization’s activities.

Still, the fatherless generation, as described by Williams, has left many young children without the support a family can bring.

Back at the Women's Centre, Lydia has experienced a “rebirth” in how she views herself as a student, a woman, a mother, explained Zoe Simpson, the centre's director of field operations.

Girls ages 11-17 are able to continue their high school education at the centre, then either return to school or sit for exams required for graduation. They also receive much more than academic support. The centre offers extensive counselling and, before they leave the centre, a contraception plan to prevent a second pregnancy from happening too soon.

“It's not that we don't want you to have another baby,” said Simpson. “But we want you to be ready.”

In the 1970s, teen mothers represented 33 per cent of Jamaica's live births. Today, the figure is 18 per cent, in part due to the efforts of the centre and other programmes that try to challenge young girls to stand up to societal pressures to become sexually active at an early age.

Among Women's Centre participants, the rate for second teen pregnancies is less than two per cent.

Discriminated-against teen mothers

Jamaican teens explained to visitors from dozens of different countries how socio-economic pressures contribute to early pregnancies and at the same time, in many ways, ostracise young women who are visibly pregnant.

For a teen mother-to-be, taking public transportation sometimes becomes a setting for humiliation, said 16-year-old Nicki: “On the bus, when I tried to sit in the larger front seat, the passengers, they told me, 'You are a baby mother. Those chairs are for big girls.' ”

This kind of discrimination angers Simpson, who counsels girls that they can make their way in spite of being blocked in school, on the bus, on the streets and, sometimes, by the father of their children.

“The boys – they get to stay in school. The father, lots of times, they say the baby isn't theirs. I say, oh, yeah, right, she was having sex with herself – the man wasn't there!”

Unfortunately, church congregations, instead of supporting young teen church members who become pregnant, often shut them out.

When dozens of girls were asked if their church families made their early pregnancy even harder, all but four raised their hands.

“There are a few congregations that have supported their teenage members who become pregnant. But, for the most part, because most churches here preach 'no sex before marriage,' our girls are often shut out of church if they become pregnant,” said Simpson.

“They hesitate to come out on the streets. They are unwed mothers in a society where unwed mothers are looked down on. Just like you can't remain in school – you often can't remain in church.”

Simpson said she tries to steer girls to focus on their individual spirituality. “I tell them that God is with you to help you become all you can.”

For Williams and the WLS, “We see that our work is also valuable for the churches. Many of the local churches send their children and young adults to our trainings and we offer our skills to train their leadership to multiply this initiative also in the daily life of the churches.”

Both the WLS and Women’s Centre are efforts to bring peace to the family and community and to strengthen the role of the church in healing social and societal wounds.

* Names of teen mothers have been changed.


© Mark Beach is Director of Communication at World Council of Churches, based in Geneva.


The IEPC opened on Wednesday 18 May and concludes on 25 May.

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