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Cultural Factors in Teenage Pregnancy in Jamaica » Self-Perception and Health

Cultural Factors in Teenage Pregnancy in Jamaica

February 5th, 2009 by bria Leave a reply »

In our readings for this week, the example of Jamaica stood out to me as particularly striking, where nearly a “quarter of all babies are born to teenage girls,” a statistic that increasingly gained attention and attracted a considerable amount of concern and “over-the-top demands by politicians,” some calling for sterilization of young women with more than three children. However, young marriage is not as common in Jamaica as it is in other countries in Africa, so many of these pregnancies belong to unmarried, young teenagers, many of whom are still in school. In total, approximately “40 percent of Jamaican women have given birth at least once before they reach the age of twenty.” At the same time, there is an existing contraceptive distribution process that is also more effective than in many countries where there are less early pregnancies. What are the social and cultural perceptions surrounding contraception and sexuality that lead to these consequences?
Before we dig deeper into the psychology, it will help to establish that abortion, in Jamaica, is still a federal crime except in some cases, (governed by an ambiguous “common law”),“(i) significant fetal abnormality; (ii) where pregnancy would represent a threat to the welfare or health of the mother and (iii) in cases where pregnancy is an outcome of rape or incest;” however, as of 2004, the third leading cause of maternal mortality in Jamaica was unsafe abortions.

However, the subjectivity of these categories gives the physician undue power, and for minors under 18, parental consent is required. The physicians, then, have the power to decide what is “rape;” what about the case, then, of a young girl who is in a relationship where she is tied economically to her partner and does not have the ability to enforce protected intercourse? Obviously, unequal access to unsafe abortion is one of the contributing factors for this high rate of teenage pregnancy.
However, what are other cultural or social factors that contribute to these high rates? The Jamaican Program for Adolescent Mothers, which strives to “enable teenage girls to continue their schooling during pregnancy and return to the regular school system…after birth and to educate women about family planning” is one group that has attempted to provide amelioration of this issue since 1978. One case study conducted in 1995 revealed several interesting points that expose the voice of the women’s themselves through discussion groups and interviews.  First, group discussions “reinforced the frequently heard opinion that social norms in Jamaica discourage discussions of sexual matters between parents and their children, or at least among parents and daughters.” This lack of communication between parents and children about sexuality is devastating and perpetuates a lack of knowledge and power. Consider the following quote:

As adults today, the women recalled how little they knew about sex and pregnancy as teenagers.

“I had sex, and I did not know where his thing was to go. [That] show how foolish I was at 13!
Even when I was pregnant, I did not think I was pregnant, even though I did not see my     period. … I remember my aunt saying, ‘Why, you look like you pregnant,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ She asked me, ‘Anybody trouble you?,’ and I say, ‘Nobody trouble me.’ I didn’t realize what she meant by ‘trouble you!’”

Other interviews revealed that the focus group participants did not use contraception “because sex was not planned” or because of “concerns about side effects.” Again, lack of education and awareness about the importance of contraception, even on the part of women, contributes to this issue.

Inequality in warped relationships with other adolescent boys is another important factor. Most women refer to the biological fathers as “baby-fathers,” since most are “not supportive during their pregnancies and do not share responsibility for the children’s upbringing.” Many adolescent girls do not remain with their first “baby fathers;” as one girl reported,

“I have two other children, and they are not for the first baby-father, and I think most of us are in that position. We have two children, and him love to control me and don’t want me to work…. Most men want  women that are weak.”

Interestingly, most of the suggestions for improvement from the focus groups of Jamaican adolescent girls suggested male involvement.

I think the boys who get girls pregnant should remove from school also and attend classes and counseling.

With counseling for him, things might have worked out. … There should be some mandatory rule to make them come in.

At the same time, women did identify access to contraception as vital: “the Program has to try to get to girls who are not yet pregnant because if the program has to deal with more girls getting pregnant, the program will lose its impact because it has to deal with too many girls.

Clearly, access to safe and legal abortion is a significant factor in the high rates of teenage pregnancies; however, the 1) stigma’s surrounding sexuality in young girls that lead to a lack of sexual education, even within families,  2) the complete lack of responsibility assumed by men regarding pregnancy, and 3) the desired “weak” attitude in young women by many males that leads to disempowerment are all other notable factors that contribute to these issues. Although we have been mainly focusing on treatments that empower women and provide them with safe access to contraception and abortion, it may be valuable to consider these women’s requests for programs that facilitate changes in male’s behavior. This and many other problems cannot be solved without the cooperation of both sexes.




  1. kristina86 says:

    Unfortunately, this picture is grim, but I believe that such statistics are not uncommon in various nations around the world. In the example you give, abortion is illegal essentially with exceptions for rape and the health of the mother. The issue of physicians having discretion is important, but at least there are exceptions for the woman to a certain extent. Teen pregnancy is an epidemic that ranges many third world countries, and hopefully solutions can be suggested to alter particularly the perceptions of men in these societies.

  2. sarahconstance says:

    I am curious as to where Jamaica ranks in the global scheme of things. To me, the fact that a quarter of all babies are born to teenagers, and that 40% of women have had a baby before they were 20 seems particularly outrageous to me. Is Jamaica on the high end for percentage of teen pregnancies? Or is that pretty average among developing countries? Aside from that, I was particularly interested in the suggestion of mandating some sort of remedial program to get the teenage fathers involved and taking some measure of responsibility. However, I am not sure how something like this would be enforced unless both the boy and the girl were at the same school. Still, though, it appears to me that Jamaica is a patriarchal society, and so I see it as highly unlikely that the parents, and on the macro level, the government, would enforce the boys to go to these programs at the expense of their education.

  3. sunree says:

    Involving both sexes in the subject of reproductive health is a vital one if we are to see comprehensive and sustainable change. As women are typically left unarmed to grapple with contraception (if this is even an option), pregnancy, infection and disease, it makes sense that the majority of sexual health promotion efforts would focus on educating and empowering them first and foremost. Yet sex and reproductive health are issues common to all genders and both sexes and should be addressed as such. Changing norms is not accomplished via segregated and contrasting messages, but through widespread and consistent channels of communication. Both men and women need be actively engaged in the discussions around sexual practices, sexual health and parenthood if we hope to see progress toward effective behavior change in this area.

  4. Fatima says:

    I remember when I fist heard the phrase “my baby daddy”. I was confused for a while…why not just refer to him as your husband? Granted I was very naive about the statistics about black women – for example in Indiana, 80% of black babies are born to single women. The national statistics aren’t much lower- I think somewhere around 69%.

    I am conflicted because I don’t necessarily believe that single parent relationships are wrong/bad/destructive/ etc etc . But I find it problematic that this is a phenomenon amongst black women. And that many of these women are also categorized as “poor”.