Family Planning in Jamaica is an Ongoing Challenge


By Re

Jamaican women earn 60 cents to the male dollar, even if they have equal or superior competence, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2015. The Caribbean country’s ranking has plummeted to the nadir of 65 of 145 countries, scoring a 52 in 2014 and down from 25 in 2006. For reference, nearby nations such as Barbados and Cuba, stand at 24 and 29, respectively.

The report also notes that Jamaica boasts the most favorable ratio of university-educated women, which should theoretically contribute to a tapering gender pay parity, but doesn’t.  The International Labor Organization published a study that additionally states that Jamaica holds the highest percentage of women in management positions, at 59.3 percent, outclassing first-world countries like the United States at 42.7 percent and the United Kingdom at 34.1 percent.

While the wage gap remains a stifling concern, many Jamaican women are not only managers but heads of households in a heavily matriarchal society.

A strong Christian influence praises the nuclear family unit to rectify the nation’s issues. Prime Minister, the Most Hon. Portia Simpson Miller, said when addressing the 11th Annual National Heal the Family, Heal the Nation Service, “Strong families make strong communities and strong communities build a strong nation. All Jamaicans should remember that no matter our social or economic status, no matter or religion or political persuasion, we are Jamaicans first.”

But Jamaican mothers are often parenting children on their own, as single-parent families are copious. Oftentimes, grandmothers offer support, as well, since minimum wage is just $5,600 Jamaican dollars (about $46 USD) per 40-hour work weeks and as teen pregnancy rates remain staggeringly high, coupled with an unemployed 11.3 percent of the population—unemployment is at over 30 percent for youth, and consistently higher among women.

Jamaica has the fourth largest teen pregnancy rate in the region, despite gains in lowering fertility among the demographic, according to a 2013 State of the World Population Report. With a birth rate of 72 per 1,000 adolescent girls, Jamaica lags only behind Belize, Guyana and the Dominican Republic.

Contraceptives are widely available—male condoms, the Depo-Provera birth control shot and pills—but are not so widely used. Local youth said that while they can and have purchased boxes of basic birth control pills for $170 Jamaican dollars (about $1.40 USD) for one month’s supply, both teen boys and men alike discourage condom use for reasons of pleasure.

“Contraceptives and birth control are things that the Ministry of Health in Jamaica publicize and emphasize through public forums and health seminars. However, I don’t believe Jamaicans gravitate toward them because men in Jamaica don’t like to use condoms,” said one woman who asked to conceal her identity.

“Contraceptive use is widely advocated but costs and accessibility mitigate the effectiveness when the free clinic giving contraceptive costs money to get to and you might be the object of gossip,” said Aleya, 25, of Kingston. “Also males tend to put pressure on vulnerable girls with low self-esteem to not use condoms because it dulls their pleasure.”

Abortions are a lesser option as they’re illegal in Jamaica and deemed murderous (though the government reported 1,200 complications from abortions in 2005-2008—the most recent data).

“Abortion is technically illegal. Some people get to do it and quite a few doctors privately believe it’s the right thing to do but don’t practice it,” Aleya added.

But regardless of contraceptives or abortions, many girls in some low income communities are simply told to find men to start taking care of themselves, and coerced to engage in sexual relationships as fertility is highly valued.

“There are some low income urban areas where there is extraordinary control over young girls,” St. Rachel Ustanny, CEO of the Jamaica Family Planning Association said. But on average, she explained, Jamaicans get married around their mid 30s.

But not everyone gets married—marriage isn’t a big deal for Jamaicans.

“They engage in significant cohabitation situations so they can live together for 20 years and never get married,” Ustanny said. This is carried on from the country’s history of enslavement, when couples were encouraged not to wed so as to not disrupt plantations. Today, those who live together for five or more years are sometimes considered legally bound to one another even without marriage.

Despite low marriage rates, the average age of having a child is 21, and women birth, on average, 2.3 children. Women in low income communities have about five.

“People value their children primarily to help them as older people,” Ustanny explained. “There’s no welfare system here. When they get old, the pension provided is small. You’re unable to support yourself. Children are an insurance.”

Having children is more than insurance; it’s also a blessing, since 89 out of 100 women die in child birth, and child mortality stands at 31 deaths for every 1,000 live births. Aside from the fact that 18 percent of births are attributed to teens whose bodies are not yet prepared to bear children, Ustanny said the government has reported challenges in sustaining midwives.

“There is a high migration rate of midwives,” she said referring to a massive flock West, where midwives follow outside opportunities. “The other problem that has been reported is the quality of care.”

And for women who are able to give birth to healthy children, those children’s fathers still don’t always necessarily stay in the picture—sometimes because they can’t contribute financially, sometimes because they chase out-of-country economic opportunities and other times due to infidelity.

“The value of fertility in this country is very strong. It is often thought that a man or woman should be able to produce children,” said 31-year-old medical technologist, Lee Bie, of Montego Bay. “It has long been a stereotype that a man must ‘spread his seed,’ and it’s talked about openly.”

“You will find that in the upper and middle class households…wives are far less excepting of infidelity—many will not tolerate it. Their husbands may still cheat but they will care more not to get caught. In the lower class, it is widely accepted as the norm for men to sleep around and ‘spread their seeds,’ have a lot of babies with different women, even though they can hardly afford to support their wives,” Tiffany Bent, 23, of Kingston added. “But you must understand that just because a Jamaican man wants to have many children, does not mean he intends to support them or be involved with them. In many cases these men do not give a dime to these outside children. These men mostly support the children of their favorite woman or women, and abandon the others financially.”

“Men in Jamaica value women who can bear their children. If in the event their spouse is not able to bear a child, they will sometimes go outside of the marital union and get a child without the wife’s knowledge or consent,” said another 47-year-old from May Pen, Clarendon, Jamaica, who wished to keep her identity concealed.

A recent news article published on Jamaica Gleaner, also suggested that men seek to “father as many children as possible while keeping their children’s mothers ‘barefoot and pregnant,’ and fully dependent on them,” which is said to also contribute to men’s disinterest in contraceptives—but none of the aforementioned women agreed that they’ve heard of such a practice at all.

Ustanny also agreed that the aforementioned report cannot be generalized to the entire population of Jamaica.

Aleya from Kingston argued that the idea of ‘spreading seeds’ has anecdotal evidence that the family planning board is pursuing.

“There’s a lot of classism in how we talk about the average person in this country, a lot of it from internalized attitudes that have been passed down and reinforced by Anglo-Protestant ideology,” she said. “[Men] don’t sit around thinking of how to abandon their children or how to knock up women and have them shackled to them forever. The studies conducted on Jamaican family values have usually come from colonial or religious motivation…Fathers, whether in the home or separated from the mothers, still try to participate however they can in their children’s lives but [sometimes can’t] when they have no monetary value to contribute.”

Stable, nuclear unions of mutual respect are a growing norm in Jamaica.

“Our gender issues are complex because the women have had to be strong throughout our troubled history full of injustice. So our women are natural leaders and run businesses and governments with just as much frequency as men, if not more so. If women are more likely to hold leadership positions, a man’s place in the family may not be as worthwhile,” noting that their absence, then, doesn’t always make men to blame.

Nuclear families are fragile in Jamaica and there’s still work to be done, but Jamaicans are hopeful about achieving overall gender parity—in the workforce and in the home. Many have said that middle- and upper-class families are already very egalitarian, maybe more so than most countries around the world.

“Fair enough since we’ve only been a country free of colonial powers for about a half a century, we are a society healing. Attitudes change as much as schools get to be built,” Aleya said.