Teen Pregnancy - Jamaica

Photo Essay

When a girl gets pregnant in Jamaica she must leave the formal school system, and life can soon become a downward spiral. Without an education,  she can become trapped in a cycle of poverty.  Every year 1250 school-aged girls come to the Women's Centre of Jamaica which is considered to be an intervention program for girls, some as young as 12 years old.  Due to the legal and social context of Jamaica abortion is illegal.  And due to the extreme poverty that is perpetuated by a classist social system and corruption, contraception is often difficult or impossible to access for many disadvantaged girls.  Children as young as 12 years old are thus forced into a pregnancy, which can be overwhelming and sometimes leading to attempted suicide. 

At the Women's Centre they have the option to continue their studies while pregnant, and after giving birth can return to finish off the school year while their babies are cared for in a nursery next door. 

(All photos in this series are of girls 17 years old or older who all gave their permission to be photographed)

Please read the captions included with the photos below by clicking on the three lines in the corner of each photograph. 

Teen pregnancy in Jamaica is high, especially among school age girls. It is much higher than the global average and mostly affects girls from rural and inner-city communities plagued by poverty, crime, gang violence, and where one or both parents is absent, usually the father.

If a girl becomes pregnant, she is required to leave the public school system.  Life can soon become a downward spiral. Without an education her prospects dwindle.  She may become dependent on her family, and may not have support from the baby's father.  The unemployment rate among women in Jamaica is 17.4 percent, compared with 9.6 percent for men.  She can soon become trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Sex-education in Jamaica is not adequate, and many girls by the age of puberty haven’t been taught the basics about their bodies: menstruation, ovulation, and pregnancy. They do not know they can get pregnant from just one time and are shocked and even suicidal to find out they ended up pregnant from having sex the first time.

In Jamaica, under the Sexual Offences Act it is illegal to engage in sexual activity before age 16.  Therefore, even peer-to-peer sex is considered a criminal act. For this reason, teachers are reluctant to provide sex education to under-age teens, and birth control is nearly impossible to access.  Also, the teen mother is reluctant to name the father of her child, for fear he may be criminally charged.

Despite the Christian values that guide Jamaican government policies, there are contradictory cultural norms that put extreme pressure on both girls and boys to have sex early and have multiple partners.  Most girls become pregnant from a high school boyfriend; but research shows that in Jamaica 50% of girls’ first time having sex is forced or unwanted. Once pregnant, there is no way out, as abortion is illegal.

In 1978 The Women's Centre of Jamaica was founded to help pregnant girls stay in school.  A pregnant teen can come here to continue her studies until the baby is born. She will receive counselling, mentorship, and training in practical trades like cooking and housekeeping, to increase the chance of finding work on graduation.

After the baby is born, girls finish out the school year here, while the baby is cared for in a free nursery next door. In 2013 a policy passed which allows teen moms to later reintegrate into the public school system.  Prior to this law, re-admission was at the discretion of the school principal and often denied due to the widespread stigma of teen pregnancy. Successful reintegration depends on the girls’ resources and support.

No data exists on what percentage of adolescent mothers successfully complete high school, but research shows their prospects are greatly increased.

There are currently 18 outreach centres across the island of Jamaica which in total enrol 1250 girls each year. Half of those girls are under 16.

Short video on Women's Centre of Jamaica

Role: Cinematographer, Director, Producer

Using Format