“If we teach the girls one thing it is resilience,' said Zoe Simpson, Executive Director of the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation, 2018 laureate of the UNESCO Prize for Girls' and Women's Education.
Value of education
In a country where abortion is illegal, many girls who attend the Centre come from poor backgrounds with little sexual health education. Getting them back into education and keeping them in a programme that is not mandatory is not always easy. “Jamaican society can condemn young girls in this situation. We help them to find their footing in society and maximise their potential by convincing them of the value of education,” said Zoe.
“Prior to the centre existing, girls would drop out when they became pregnant and that would be the end of their secondary education. Now they get their academic qualification and after the birth they are mandatorily reintegrated into the formal school system.” Boys and young men are also offered counselling, including discussions on fatherhood.
The Centre teaches girls that children of educated mothers have a better chance of being educated themselves. In fact, Zoe says there is evidence of success that children of educated mothers gain meaningful employment, thus breaking the cycle of early pregnancy. “We want them to leave here with all the skills to confront whatever challenges they may face. Pick whatever profession you like in Jamaica and you will find our ex-students there,” she said.
A UNESCO Laureate transforming lives
Winning the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education means the Centre will continue to build on its work and improve the delivery of their virtual curriculum for harder to reach adolescent girls who are not able to commute to onsite programmes. “Enrolment for the virtual course has quadrupled over the last 3 years.” The Centre also plans on developing a mentoring programme, and integrating screening for gender-based violence and post-partum depression into its services.
When it comes to transforming lives, Kinshasia Johnson's story is typical. “I was 14. I was at home one day when I felt something vibrating in my stomach. I thought it was my phone but I did not know yet that what I was feeling was a heartbeat.” Kinshasia was a motivated and focused student in Grade 9 at a prominent high school. “I worried about the disappointments that others would feel once they found out that I was pregnant,” she said.
The first and hardest disappointment came from her father who did not approve of her pregnancy. Kinshasia turned to a welcoming place; she registered at the Women's Centre. “It was challenging,” she said. “Many times I couldn’t afford the bus fare to the centre and my lunch, but the support from the Centre helped me in many ways.” With the centre's programmes, she received her high school diploma. She now works at the Electoral Office of Jamaica as a registration clerk and at the same time is undertaking a Bachelor of Science degree in the field of logistics and supply chain management.
Tashai Green became pregnant at 15 as a result of sexual assault. She confided in her aunt who enrolled her at the Centre. “I wasn’t ready to be a mom. I couldn’t even take care of myself, never mind a child,” Tashai said. “At the Centre, I learned that giving up was not an option.”
After a year at the Centre, Tashai returned to high school. “It wasn't easy combining sleepless nights, breastfeeding and study but I graduated,” she said. She now works as a medical technologist.
On International Day of the Girl this year, the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education for its work supporting Jamaican pregnant adolescent girls and mothers to return to the school system and complete their education. Funded by the Government of the People’s Republic of China, the Prize awards US$ 50,000 to two laureates annually who have made outstanding contributions to advance girls’ and women’s education.
The Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation, founded in 1978 to provide adolescent girls with the possibility of continuing their education during pregnancy, gives them the chance to study and pass the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate. The Programme for Adolescent Mothers is a holistic mix of support with everything from counselling to enable the girls to become good parents and to prepare them to cope with the dynamics of returning to school as both a student and a mother, to financial assistance to care for their children.