BY GIZELLE MORRIS
When several girls, ranging in ages 13 to 15, were discovered to be pregnant or sexually active, a Form Two class at Malick Senior Comprehensive School, Morvant, was ordered by the principal to attend abstinence club meetings.
The class has 22 students.
The abstinence club was started at Malick last October in an effort to introduce a new set of values.
"The principal felt students should be exposed to the programme to help them make some wise choices," said teacher Bernice James, manager of the club.
During club meetings, it came out that several of the 35 members were sexually active. But despite James’ best efforts, the students who were forced to attend have shown little interest. "Sometimes they are disruptive," said James.
Overall, however, despite some scepticism about the abstinence message, James does not feel all is lost.
"It is not a cool thing. Perhaps that's why we don't have many more (members)," James added. And, in spite of "very widespread" sexual activity among the younger students, she believes the abstinence message was being heard.
"Students are peeping through the windows. They are not coming in but looking in, listening in, and moving on," she said.
Pregnant schoolgirls "across the board"
The case of pregnant and sexually active students of a Form Two class is not exclusive to Malick Secondary Comprehensive. But nobody knows the extent of the problem, least of all it seems, the Ministry of Education.
"It has been happening across the board," contended James, who also teaches Food & Nutrition and Management.
James, who has been a teacher at Malick for the past 28 years, said pupils entering Form One at her school were already sexually active. "We are getting students from the junior secs who already have babies," she said.
When James first started teaching at the school, student pregnancies were rare.
"Long time, the girls were not getting pregnant. They focused on school and were excited about it. They were more disciplined and had a positive influence on each other," she recalled.
Now, she said, standards have fallen.
"Everything is accepted. We are moving the goal post all the time so nobody has to make an effort to keep values," she said.
Once a girl begins to show signs of her pregnancy, the principal calls in her parents or guardian. In most cases, parents are asked to take the girl out of school until she gives birth.
After childbirth, young moms can return to school, but they get no special treatment.
"They don't come back in where they left off, they have to try and catch up. You don't get extra time...it is not like they are on maternity leave," said James.
In most cases, James said, the mothers were proud of their offspring and showed off to friends, fellow students, who congratulated and complimented them.
James could not give any statistics on student pregnancies in schools and attempts by the Sunday Guardian to get data from the Ministry of Education were largely unsuccessful.
Support services do exist to help pregnant schoolgirls, admitted Mervyn Crichlow, communications specialist at the Ministry of Education. He said he preferred, however, not to say how many girls or schools have been affected.
Initially, he said figures were not available. Then he said the Student Support Services Division does collect some data.
When asked if Sunday Guardian could have access to this information, Crichlow said: "I prefer not to make that available for public consumption."
A request to the Student Services Division for the information was refused. An official at the department said public officers were not allowed to speak with the media and she referred all questions to the Ministry's communication department.
Girls: Pressure on us to have sex
THE pressure to become sexually active is overwhelming, said 15-year-old Dara Schullere, the project director of Malick's abstinence club.
"You seeing it right in school. Cute boys talking to you. Girls saying ‘it feel so nice you don't know what you missing out','" said Amelia Richards, the club's public relations officer.
It is an experience with which Merkeir Carter, 16, the club's membership director, can identify.
Carter said she has girlfriends who keep telling her by not having sex she's "missing out."
In some cases, the girls said, they are encouraged, not by boyfriends, but girlfriends to become sexually active.
"God give you that to use it," Carter said she has been told by other girls.
"I have a boyfriend," she said, adding "a girlfriend knows him and is like ‘girl, you eh giving he something?'"
Carter said her friend was now pregnant and has dropped out of school.
"When you see these things you don't want to get involved (sexually)" she said.
Richards said before joining the club she practised abstinence. "I grew up in a Christian home," she said by way of explanation.
But Richards was also concerned about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). "I found there is a lot of STDs around and the youths should know about it," she said.
But, according to Carter, that concern was not shared by everyone in their age group. "Some say everybody have to dead and you must dead from something," she said.
The girls said society also bombards them with messages that can encourage sex.
"Watching TV, listening to radio, it makes it seem that sex has no consequences," said club member Catherine Fortune.
"It makes it seem fun and exciting," added the 15-year-old. All these messages, the teenagers said, make it seem like everyone is "doing it" and abstinence is therefore impossible.
"It is very hard to keep abstinent without support," said Carter. "The abstinence club helps in dealing with your boyfriend and parents and that's why I joined," she added.
Boys: Sex makes
me feel like a man
"SOME boys say when they have sex it makes them feel like a man. Most boys feel if you love a girl you have to show her by sexing her," said 15-year-old Marquis Thomas.
Thomas is the fund-raiser director of Malick's Abstinence Club.
He admits it is not easy matter being a boy in an abstinence club. Thomas and the club's president Karlson Armour, 15, both said they have had to face taunts from both boys and girls.
"They take abstinence as a joke," said Armour.
And despite being a Christian and committed to abstinence, Thomas said he was as susceptible as any other boy to a sexy girl in tight pants.
The club, however, has helped him to get the better of his desires. "It is a guide to help you understand life and let you know sex is not all," he said.
"No school wants to release information (on teen pregnancies). They feel it is something that will bring shame to the school," said Trevor Oliver, an executive member of the Principal's Association and a former president of TTUTA.
Because of this, he said, getting statistics on the number of schoolgirls who become pregnant each year is very difficult.
"People know it's happening but you can't say if it's one or ten. You can't accurately say if it's on the increase because of the data recording process," Oliver said.
He also said principals were not obligated to report student pregnancies to the Education Ministry.
Oliver also said the education system ignores the possibility of students becoming pregnant.
"It is still a situation where people don't expect it to happen and no one wants it to happen in their school, so there is no record of it," Oliver said.
And while there were no set procedures for dealing with pregnant students, Oliver said there were unwritten laws which principals were expected to follow.
These include calling in the girl's parents, taking her out of school, getting her transferred to another institution and treating the issue with secrecy.
"To this day there is still a secretive approach to it. Everyone wants it hush-hush," said Oliver.
"Sometimes it is felt, rightly or wrongly, that to protect the child nothing should be said," he added.
Lamenting the continued "reactive approach" to the problem, Oliver said when a student becomes pregnant it was still considered a shame and disgrace to her family and school.
"There is no proactive approach to dealing with it or the recording of data," he said.
Oliver said there ought to be a family life programme in schools to help deal with the situation.
"Over the years the Principals' Association has asked to have a family life structure set up...this has not been done in any organised way," he said.
"FOR too long the Government has been pussyfooting with the implementation of a Health and Family Life Programme in schools," said Glennis Hyacinth, executive director of Advocates for Safe Parenthood: Improving Reproductive Equity.
Health and family life programmes have already been implemented in schools in several Caribbean countries, Hyacinth said during a recent telephone interview,
"Trinidad is very backward in that respect," she said.
Hyacinth said at 15 per cent, the number of teenage pregnancies in T&T was unacceptable.
"We are seeing more and more that younger people are getting involved in sexual activity," she said.
Saying that there was a need for a comprehensive programme, Hyacinth reminded that Aspire was not against abstinence but that an abstinence message must be part of a bigger message.
She insisted there was need for a more holistic approach to dealing with young people.
"In schools, NGOs are allowed to come in and chat with young people about sexuality, but it is done in an ad-hoc way. It is not structured," said Hyacinth.
"In the North/East district young girls are being helped by men to go to school. The result of that is teenage pregnancy," said Zena Ramatali president of the National Parent/Teacher Association. Ramatali said that poverty and a lack of parental guidance leave female students girls open to exploitation.
She said NPTA did not have data on the prevalence of teenage pregnancy in the school system.
"We have started to do research on drop-outs because of teenage pregnancy and those who can't cope," she said, noting too, that the NPTA recently started a series of Health and Family Life workshops.
"It is a preventative programme to help parents develop skills to help them parent young people," said Ramatali of the initiative which is partly funded by the Pan American Health Organisation.
The NPTA president said there was a need to educate parents who were unable to effectively guide their daughters.
"We started doing our bit, recognising the need for it," she said.
In 2001, a girl between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth to a baby—it was her sixth child.
This was one of the preliminary findings of the Central Statistical Office's 2001 Population and Vital Statistics Report.
More recent figures were not available.
Although the 2001 report has not yet been published, excerpts are available from the CSO.
Figures collected for 2001 show that of the 2,629 babies born to mothers in the 15 to 19 age group:
* 2,173 babies were first born
* 404 were second births
* 44 were their mother's third child
* six babies were to mothers who already had four children
* one baby was its mother's sixth child
The 2001 CSO also found:
* 25 babies were born to 14-year-old mothers
* four to 13-year-old girls
* one baby was born to a mother under the age of 13
An official at the CSO said in some cases, mothers in the 15 to 19 age group were married, most to older men.
The 2000 Population and Vital Statistics Report states that almost 15 per cent of the babies born in T&T were to teenage mothers.
In 2000, "births to teenage mothers amounted to 2,683 or 14.8 per cent of total live births," the report stated.
These figures, however, do not include teenagers whose pregnancies ended in stillbirths or abortions.
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