I attended an informative and educational Youth Forum on the Rights of Students in the Education System in Jamaica where discussions about uniformity, decorum, religion, comprehensive sexuality education, age of consent and much more were held. This event was organized by the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network and JAYECAN with support from UNDEF.
Those who attended were members of the public, relevant community based organizations, civil society organization and the most important group- students. Individuals were selected to attend on behalf of their high school with some respective voices from the universities as well. It was a bottom-up approach by the constituents to engage students and provide them a safe space for unfiltered discussion. It is said that youth form the greatest proportion in society thus it is time to show action by all that student rights matter.
I found this forum to be thought-provoking and engaging. At first, it seemed the students were excited for a day off school but as the discussions prolonged, they were fully engaged and asking the right questions. To begin, it is important to understand Jamaica’s education system and culture.
Education through the six years of primary school is compulsory and free in government-sponsored schools. The academic year runs from September to July with the language of instruction in English. The curriculum is mirrored of schools in Great Britain but after the independence, it has been focused on fashioning a better fit between the educational system and development needs of the people. The curriculum content is seen as simply helping to prepare students for entry to the next level instead of helping students live more productive lives in their own societies. Each child must go through a series of tests in Grade 1, 3, 4 and 6 which places them in their respective High Schools which is compulsory up to grade 11 and optionally up to grade 13. Each high school student must take two major exams at the end of their secondary education known as the General Certificate Examinations (GCE) and the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC). Although it seems as the youth are prepared for the workforce and further learning, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information State Minister, Mr. Floyd Green explains the issue perfectly in opening remarks with a comparison- “A buggy driven by a horse became a car, a telephone became a cell phone but a classroom has not changed. Students are still sitting in a linearly line taking notes, tests while listening to a teacher”. This reminded me of a spoken word video that went viral called “I just sued the education system”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqTTojTija8 . I love learning and I genuinely love school but this video exemplifies the truth. We are in a new world and the curriculum needs to adapt with the generation.
The forum was an open and safe space to ask questions. It took a bit of encouragement but the students got riled up and asked the hard questions. Some that stood out to me were:
- “Why can we as students not report our teachers for not performing their full duties? We have to go to our own school administrators who often ignore our complaints and excusing the teacher that they had an off day. How can we create a proper reporting system?”
- “Why is the age of consent-16 but the age of adult-18? What is the rationale behind the law? Why can we not access sexual health services until we are 18 unless we are with an adult? It is a contradictory law.”
- “As the trend of violence against students is rising- what is the ministry response? Students are afraid to go to school because it is unsafe to walk. Think about the scenario with the little boy who was killed for an old cellphone!”
- “Our school is bringing in big franchise names to our canteens. They are overpriced and are not healthy or nutritious. Why are they feeding us this?”
- “How can we update the rules? We are not allowed to buy water or a patty on the road in our uniform or we will be reprimanded. It is old fashioned thinking!”
How do you answer these? What is the right answer? Listening to the Ministry respond to their questions, I felt the answers were directed in a way that a clear solution was not given. They were as I would describe it, “fluffy answers”. The State Minister gave answers such as “email us; write a position paper, the government is working on it”. Personally, I did not like his answers because he had just talked about change but in reality, it felt he was only “talking” with no action.
One of the biggest issues that students found at the forum is related to my role at CVC and why I came to Jamaica-the comprehensive sexual education in the curriculum. CVC is part of a movement to advocate for a new sexual curriculum. When it was announced to the youth at the forum that the curriculum may change, the head boy/head girl stated that the students felt the curriculum should not be taught until high school. They felt that the exposure to sex education would increase the sexual desires within themselves. This was the opposite of our goals which was to introduce the education at an earlier stage (similar to what Ontario was doing). Jamaican Family Planning Association (https://famplan.wordpress.com/) made a presentation to explain that sex education does not sexualize children. In fact, comprehensive sex-ed programs have been shown to lower the risk of teen pregnancy, when compared to abstinence-only programs or a lack of sex education altogether. More and more reports have discovered children are being exposed to porn, sexual assault, etc. at a young age. The presenter explained her own story when she was raped at 3 years old; she was taught it was normal to masturbate at 6 years old. Her expectations around sex were being raised on her sexual assault and the lack of discussion about safe sex practices and consent. Statistics in Jamaica from a Caricorn Report included:
- 1 out of 3 Jamaicans report they had sex before turning 15
- 4 out of 25 adolescent boys reported experiencing forced sex for the first time
- 1 out of 2 adolescent girls reported experiencing forced sex for the first time
- The “normal” age to start experiencing sex is 10-12 years old for boys, 15 years old for girls
It feels surreal to listen to these numbers but it not untrue. I have met many individuals who told me they were HIV survivors or they had been raped as their first time. They also explain that intergenerational sex and transactional sex was very common in their everyday lives. What is to say what is right and what is wrong? What is going to change the culture of sexual education? Gender-based violence? This topic needs to stop being an uncomfortable dinner conversation. It needs to stop imparting shame, embarrassment and giggles but instead be the lifelong ability to make better informed decisions about one’s own sexual health.
Throughout the forum, issues continued to pile up. It may seem that the Ministry is getting nothing done but they are. They have brought back Youth Parliament, created a Youth Advocacy Council and are holding open discussions and engaging youth through forums such as this one. The issue at hand is-the change is slow. Additionally, as much as they are providing platforms, the youth and those impacted by the issues must use these platforms. It does no use to complain to each other. As a person in the community, as a youth, as a student, you have the leeway to ask the hard questions without fear. However; you have a responsibility to your position and you should talk WITH them, not AT them. I call for the students to use the platforms given to them and use their voices to call for action. Stop staying silent, use your voices! Be heard!
Eval. (2016). Jamaica – educational System—overview. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/727/Jamaica-EDUCATIONAL-SYSTEM-OVERVIEW.html
Last, S. (2016, November ). News archive. Retrieved November 21, 2016, from http://www.moey.gov.jm/content/minister
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