Setting The Record Straight: JFJ Children’s Home Programme

A significant amount of misrepresentation and falsehoods have been in the media concerning the sexual and reproductive rights pilot programme implemented by JFJ in six children’s homes between November, 2013 and May, 2014. JFJ wishes to set the record straight.

The Caribbean has the fastest growing rate of HIV infection in the 13-19 year old cohort of both male and female adolescents.Those living in poverty, on the street and in institutional care are at high risk of infection. In Jamaica the average age of sexual initiation is 14.5 years for males and 15.8 years for females. Like their peers in the general population, many children in State and private institutions are already sexually active; some girls are already mothers when they are admitted into the homes and some become pregnant while there. Many of the homes lack capacity and resources to create adequately protective environments for the youth.Evidence of alarming numbers of “critical incidents” involving sexual activity exists in the monitoring reports of the Child Development Agency (CDA) itself.

For over a decade, JFJ has worked on a wide range of human rights issues, including the rights and welfare of children in State care and in conflict with the law. Based on the evidence of children’s vulnerability to health risks, JFJ undertook a sexual and reproductive rights programme in six privately run homes. The purpose was to equip children with accurate and comprehensive information and life skills they could use to protect themselves against abuse, risky behaviour and the contraction of HIV.

A part of JFJ’s mandate is human rights education aimed at bringing about fundamental changes in attitudes and understanding of the concepts of human rights. Sexual and reproductive rights are internationally recognised. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1989) – which Jamaica has ratified – enshrines reproductive rights for children. Moreover, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has emphasized that children’s rights be respected in view of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and specifically mentions the rights to: sex education, preventative health care, and family planning education and services as important.

In addition to signing the UN CRC, Jamaica signed the Programme of Action for Population and Development (1994) which outlined that “full attention should be given to meeting the educational and service needs of adolescents to enable them to deal in a positive and responsible way with their sexuality.” It identifies barriers to reproductive health and rights and states: “Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of their lack of information and access to relevant services in most countries.”

Sex education for children is an emotionally charged subject. Many adults seem to think that if children are not taught sex education, they will not have sex. Regardless of adult opinion, many Jamaican children have sex before the legal age of consent of 16. Significant numbers are involved in transactional sex- providing various kinds of sexual favours in return for some kind of practical or emotional support. Children need to know the dangers of various types of sexual behaviour and how to avoid them.

In developing its programme, JFJ utilized existing, accepted, government produced or disseminated sex and reproductive health education material, primarily the Jamaican Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, authored by a national task force that included FAMPLAN Jamaica (which provided these Guidelines to JFJ), the National Family Planning Board, the Ministry of Health (MOH), the Jamaica Red Cross and UWI. 3,500 copies of the Guidelines have been made available to schools and tertiary institutions.In addition to the Guidelines, brochures from the Ministry of Health, a training manual from Caribbean Vulnerable Communities (CVC)/COIN and a FAMPLAN Jamaica power point presentation were also used as resource material. FAMPLAN Jamaica provided training to two JFJ facilitators. At no point was there an agreement or requirement for FAMPLAN Jamaica to sign off on the content of any part of the programme whatsoever.

The programme funder, CVC, implements the aspects of the Caribbean’s HIV response that address the needs of the most vulnerable populations with highest risk of HIV infection. Their primary source of funding is the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Global Fund is also the principal funder of Caribbean Governments’ (including Jamaica’s) HIV response programmes.

The JFJ programme was wide-ranging, teaching about human rights generally, sexual and reproductive rights and respoinsibilities, sexuality and society including relevant local legislation, puberty, reproduction and body image, gender issues, relationships, communication and decision making skills. The programme was implemented with appropriate approvals from the administrators and Boards of the homes. Contact was made to the homes by phone or e-mail and a letter was sent from JFJ to all six homes explaining the concept, purpose and expected outcomes of the programme.Memoranda of Understanding were developed and signed with all the homes.Training sessions were held first with staff including caregivers and teachers explaining the rationale for the programme, exploring the content of the programme and describing the desired environment in which the programme was to be delivered. The homes then selected the participants in the programme (JFJ had no part in this).  The cohort targeted was 13 to 17 year olds, although a few 12 year olds were admitted and allowed to stay because their 13thbirthday would fall within the year the programme was being administered. Caregivers sat in on many presentations and they as well as administrators, were supplied with the powerpoint presentations along with Ministry of Health materials.

Far from being secretive about the programme, JFJ was required in its agreement with CVC to publicize the programme. Two online newsletters were published and circulated in May and June to various stakeholders including the CDA and Ministry of Youth. Abridged versions of these newsletters were published as JFJ columns in the Jamaica Observer, one in May and the other on June 11, 2014, entitled ‘JFJ rolls out Children’s Homes Programme’.

There was no sexual grooming. During the workshops children were taught that abstinence is the only 100% safe way to guard against infection and avoid pregnancy. They were taught refusal skills, what to do if an unwanted advance was made to them and what constituted a ‘good touch’ and a ‘bad touch.’ The legal framework concerning vaginal sex and the age of consent was explained. The law concerning anal sex was explained. The facts about the dangers of unprotected sex – be it oral, anal or vaginal – were also explained. The media chose to sensationalise these elements. Had any research been done, it would have been understood that these are standard messages of our own Ministry of Health on STI prevention and are consistent with globally recognised good practice.

The information provided was appropriate for the life experiences, exposure and level of risk of the target group of children. In addition to chronological age, these factors are of great relevance in determining the information children need and have a right to.

The programme was valuable to the caregivers and children. Many caregivers were happy to learn of their own rights and responsibilities and to acquire more information and skills to help the children. Some administrators said the programme was too long in coming.  Children gave positive feedback on their better understanding of the facts, their rights, the laws, how to protect themselves and to forge healthy relationships. To JFJ’s knowledge, no comparable government programme exists for children’s homes despite the children’s high level of sexual and reproductive health risk and risk of abuse of their rights.

Accusations that JFJ was involved in criminal activity of any kind are completely unfounded and have been profoundly damaging.

The sensationalising of the programme and JFJ Board’s mishandling of the response, resulted in an unfortunate fall-out. Unfortunate for JFJ whose reputation and fifteen years of work has been severely undermined; for Dr Carolyn Gomes whose reputation and record of service has been damaged by unfounded claims and unwarranted attacks; unfortunate for the staff of the six children’s homes who were badly let down and embarrassed. The greatest long term consequence of the controversy however has been the loss of a valuable educational programme designed to more adequately protect children most at risk for teen parenthood and infection with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).