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Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) has been advocating for improvements in the situation of children in state care for over a decade. The focus has primarily been on lobbying both locally and internationally for changes in policy, legislation and implementation. The organisation has now expanded its child rights portfolio to include direct intervention.

For the past eight months, JFJ has been implementing a project in six privately run children’s homes to help advance the development of wards of the state through education and capacity building training. In response to the increase in HIV and AIDS infections in adolescents, JFJ has provided over 120 wards with training in healthy sexual growth and development from a rights, responsibility and life skills perspective. Also benefiting from the intervention were approximately 80 caregivers who received training in providing a non-judgmental environment for the children when they are faced with certain sexual and reproductive health issues. JFJ’s efforts are aimed at achieving gradual behaviour change in reducing unhealthy sexual practices, improving health-seeking behaviours and minimising the number of youth getting infected with HIV.

Many adolescents are sexually active, engaging in risky sexual behaviours such as having multiple sex partners and inconsistently using condoms. The increased incidence of HIV and AIDS indicates that the message of abstinence is not working. Adolescents also need comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and non-discriminatory avenues to improve their health-seeking behaviours and access to certain health services.

Risky sexual behaviour among marginalised youth affects everyone, including impacting the country’s healthcare and welfare systems and in turn, its economy.

With over 500 ‘critical incident’ reports in children’s homes from 2006-2010, the creation of healthy spaces for wards’ development is vital for improving their situation. Implementing the intervention was not always an easy task as some wards displayed a lack of respect for persons in authority as well as each other. Their behavioural issues reflected those of a wider society rife with a breakdown in values and indicated that there is also need for long-term interventions in decorum, conflict resolution and anti-bullying. These other initiatives could be helpful to strengthen JFJ’s intervention.

Although positive results are already being reported by administrators at some children’s homes, as their wards are exhibiting improved self-confidence and are engaging staff in more discussions on sexual and reproductive health, there is still much to be done on issues affecting youth, especially those who are institutionalised. There are over 40 other children’s homes that are in need of projects similar to JFJ’s healthy, sexual growth and development intervention, and as for those that benefited from the organisation’s involvement, they seemed to be devoid of other long-term interventions suited for their wards to function in the wider society.

Education must be ongoing and delivered with the best interest of the child in mind. Education and learning should not just be about academics nor should care and protection of institutionalised children consist mainly of providing food, shelter and clothing. Priority also has to be placed on their complete development. Children in government-run facilities should not leave the same way they entered the system nor in a worse state. The onus is on all stakeholders, especially our government representatives, to ensure that this is addressed.