News and Views by Dionne Jackson Miller

pointed commentary on current affairs in Jamaica and the Caribbean


September 2012

That Health and Family Life Education Manual – Bad Move!

English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle),...
English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle), male homosexuality (upper right), male bisexuality (lower right), female homosexuality (lower left) and female bisexuality (upper left). Česky: Symboly pro heterosexualitu (uprostřed), mužskou homosexualitu (vpravo nahoře), mužskou bisexualitu (vpravo dole), ženskou homosexualitu (vlevo dole) a ženskou bisexualitu (vlevo nahoře). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somebody messed up. Big time. This is not about being liberal, tolerant or open-minded. The people who managed to get what has turned out to be a hugely controversial Health and Family Life Education manual into Jamaican schools must have known that sections of the manual would be offensive to many Jamaican parents.

The manual, funded by UNICEF, is over 400 pages long, for Grades 7-9, and covers four themes, eating and fitness, managing the environment, self and interpersonal relationships and the one that has come in for criticism, sexuality and sexual health. The vast majority of the programme is uncontroversial, but some sections, dealing with sexuality, have raised concerns.

TVJ broke the story about some of the contents of the manual last week, which resulted in an immediate public backlash.

Within 24 hours of the story first airing, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said that:

“I consider sections of the manual inappropriate for any age and certainly for the Grade 7 and 8 students for which it was designed. I have instructed that the material be withdrawn from all schools and re-written then redistributed…”

It doesn’t matter if you believe that the law making buggery a criminal offence should be repealed, or if you think Jamaican society is homophobic and more tolerance is needed (or not), or if you are a gay rights activist who wants to see same-sex marriage legalized at some point. That is really not what this is about.

It’s about trying to sneak a controversial curriculum into schools without the knowledge of most of the parents of the children in those schools. It’s about trying to force change in a way that is certain to bring a social backlash. It’s about being respectful enough of other people’s views to understand that whatever you think children ought to be taught, parents have a right to have a say in that decision. This is not just a desirable principle, it’s a legal requirement. Section 44 of our Education Act says:

In the exercise and performance of the functions assigned to him by this Act, the Minister shall have regard to the general principle that, so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, the wishes of parents are to be considered in the education of students.

I used the words “sneak a controversial curriculum into schools” quite deliberately. I don’t care who in the Education Ministry approved that manual, how much donor money was spent or that focus groups were involved. Anybody, and I mean any honest person, would have known that most Jamaican parents would have objected to sections of that manual. If you were serious about wanting buy-in, the controversial sections would have been published, widely disseminated and discussed in the media to truly gauge public and parental reaction. Any bets as to what the outcome would have been?

One of the most publicized aspects of the manual is the activity aimed at Grades 7 and 8 students with the stated objective of increasing ‘awareness of an individual’s personal risk of HIV infection.’ The questions include:

–       Have you ever had sexual intercourse?

–       Have you ever had sex without a condom?

–       Have you ever had casual sexual partners?

–       Have you ever had anal sex without a condom?

–       Do you know your HIV status?

–       Do you know the HIV status of all your partners?

Someone has just emailed me to point out that the activity is for the students to assess themselves, and that the answers are not meant to be shared with the teachers. So what happens when a teacher is inadvertently made privy to one of the answers? What if a child decides to share his or her experiences thinking the teacher can be trusted? Not all can. Also, are ordinary classroom teachers really equipped to handle the possible ramifications of raising some of these issues?

We hear a lot about children having sex at an early age. The 2008 Jamaica Reproductive Health Survey, conducted by the National Family Planning Board, indicates that 66% of young women and 75% of young men say they have had sex. These figures are actually a bit lower than those in the 2002 survey when 69% of young women and 82 % of young men reported having had sex. (Respondents were men aged 15-24, and women aged 15-49.)

In addition, the 2008 report stated that the mean age for first sexual encounter was 16.1 for young women, and 14.5  for young men, compared to 15.8 and 13.5, respectively, in 2002.

Twelve per cent of young women and 35% of young men reported having sex for the first time before they were 15.

Clearly this is cause for concern and must be addressed. A lot of young people are having sex. And inevitably, some of that sex is risky.

English: Adults and children estimated to be l...
English: Adults and children estimated to be living with HIV in 2007. Source: WHO & UNAIDS (here) Ελληνικά: Ενήλικες και παιδιά που εκτιμάται ότι ζουν με τον ιό HIV το 2007. Πηγή: Παγκόσμιος Οργανισμός Υγείας & UNAIDS (εδώ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jamaica is one of seven out of ten Caribbean countries named by UNAIDS Caribbean on its website as having a prevalence rate for HIV of over 1%. The figure for Jamaica is 1.7%. UNAIDS says:

“When the HIV rate in the general population is higher than one percent this is defined as a general epidemic. That means that while communities with higher risk such as men who have sex with men and sex workers may contribute disproportionately to the spread of HIV, heterosexual transmission is also sufficient to sustain an epidemic independent of those groups.”

So most of us understand that young people must be given information about the dangers of early sexual activity and how to protect themselves when they start having sex. Advocates of  the manual apparently think we don’t. That’s not it. But how far should schools go?

Look at the flip side. Eight out of ten of the girls and two out of every three boys  would NOT have had sex in first and second form, which is the  age group targeted by these activities in the family life manual. Does that really suggest that we need to have discussions about multiple sexual partners and anal sex with the class as a whole?

Is there a way to initiate introductory discussions about sex and risky sexual behavior without going into the kind of detail many parents have said they find offensive? Could we start the general discussions in class, but with a pointer to internet sites where sexually active students who have concerns can discreetly go to access the more detailed information they might need? Or find a way to involve parents in the process, by asking them to discuss sensitive information with their children?  I know, I know, many parents are themselves ignorant, or uncomfortable discussing reproductive health issues. So how do we provide the information our young people clearly need without introducing topics that have been deemed unnecessary and inappropriate for others of the same age? After all, the statistics clearly show that not all teenagers are having sex.  It’s a discussion we need to continue, until we find a generally acceptable  solution.

Another offensive aspect of the manual for many people though, was its emphasis on sexual orientation which the manual rightly identifies as a “controversial topic.” I guess this is where I  say “duh!”

English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle),...
English: Symbols for heterosexuality (middle), male homosexuality (upper right), male bisexuality (lower right), female homosexuality (lower left) and female bisexuality (upper left). Česky: Symboly pro heterosexualitu (uprostřed), mužskou homosexualitu (vpravo nahoře), mužskou bisexualitu (vpravo dole), ženskou homosexualitu (vlevo dole) a ženskou bisexualitu (vlevo nahoře). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Again, one can only wonder at the person who really thought it would be appropriate to include in an activities section for Grade Six students, a suggestion that “students volunteer for a panel discussion on the rights of homosexuals. The discussion focuses on the need to show tolerance and respect to all persons.”

The guided imagery activity for Grade 8, asking students to imagine a world where it was normal to be gay but where you, the students, were straight, was also problematic for a number of reasons.

For one thing, many people saw it as “conditioning” children to accept the gay lifestyle. In my view, the aim of the activity was clear, to try to have students walk in the shoes of a gay student and understand his/her feelings and problems a little more. But adapted as it was from a Toolkit by a group called Advocates for Youth to “create safe space for GLBTQ Youth,” this was an inherently wrong choice. NB – GLBTQ means Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender and Questioning (I had to look up the Q!)

Advocates for Youth is a US-based organization which seems to carry out considerable work in the field of  reproductive health education and advocacy for young people and describes itself, among other things, as an “innovator of new programs to redress homophobia and transphobia in communities of color.”  That should have been a little red flag for people who wanted to borrow material for our purposes, shouldn’t it?

Another recent survey gives us a picture of current Jamaican attitudes to different sexual lifestyles.

The 2012 National Survey of Attitudes and Perceptions of Jamaicans Towards Same-Sex Relationships  was recently released by the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), and was  funded by AIDS-Free World.

The survey states that about 50% of respondents become aware of homosexuality by 14 years old, 88% felt male homosexuality was immoral, 83.7% felt female homosexuality was immoral, and 83.5% felt bisexuality was immoral.

When questioned, 76.7 percent of respondents did not want to see the buggery law amended, and 65% did not want the constitution amended to include specific reference to LGBT rights. However, 21.3% said they would support an amendment that would allow consensual sex between adults in private.

One reader commented that there was “extensive island-wide” consultation with stakeholders. If that is so, then the persons designing the field testing needs to revamp his or her methodology entirely, because it clearly was useless in gauging true public opinion on the most controversial issues.

Should tolerance be taught? I would say yes, absolutely, but there must be serious questions asked about the methodology which the Education Ministry chose to use here. The attempt by the people behind this manual to tackle this issue in the schools in the way we saw here was not just inadvisable, it was disrespectful as well.

People who are so quick to speak about the need to respect others, need to understand that respect works both ways. Parents’ wishes, much as you may disagree with them, must be respected as well. And if you have trouble accepting that, refer again to section 44 of the Education Act.

The Patois/Patwa Wars

Photo by Master isolated images at

Over the past few months, the ever-present patois/patois/creole/Jamaican wars have shifted into high gear. On the one hand you have Jamaicans who cannot understand why there is a debate, and insist that the answer is to forget about patois in any formal setting, especially in the schools, and to ensure that children speak English.

In the other corner are those who believe that the controversy is yet another example of our self-contempt and refusal to acknowledge and celebrate that which belongs to us.

It’s such a hot topic, I’m blogging on it over at Since the RJR link link is not active right now, however, here’s my post.

Jamaicans get passionate about many things, but even so, the raging debate over patwa/patois/creole/Jamaican, call it what you will, has got to be near the top of the list.

The latest onslaught of letters to the editor and calls to talk shows seems to have been fuelled by  concerns about falling grades in CSEC English this year, and the role of patois in creating the problem or being part of the solution, depending on your point of view.

You have Jamaicans who cannot understand why this is even a debate, who feel strongly that patois is fine in its place, as long as that place is nowhere near the seats of power or the classroom.

Then, there are expert linguists who argue that patois is a language, the first language of most Jamaicans, and it should be formally recognized by officialdom. (And let me head off the inevitable protests that patois can’t be recognized because it is not standardized by pointing out that Frederic Cassidy developed a writing system for patois, and his Dictionary of Jamaican English was first published by  Cambridge University Press as far back as 1967.)

Suggestions for official recognition have included a recommendation from Linguistics Professor at the University of

University of the West Indies
University of the West Indies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the West Indies (UWI) Hubert Devonish for a constitutional amendment banning discrimination on the basis of language, and a proposal from UWI Professor of literary and cultural studies Carolyn Cooper in a September 14, 2008 article in the Gleaner that the Prime Minister address Parliament at least once a year in Jamaican, and that portions of the budget debate be given in both English and patois, so everyone could understand.

Cooper however is a pragmatist and I am sure has no illusions about the likelihood of either of these occurrences any time soon. Indeed, in another article dated November 6, 2011 in the Gleaner, she called Jamaica:

“…one of the most backward places on Earth when it comes to acknowledging the value of the Creole languages created by African people who were colonised by Europeans.”

Her consistent advocacy for the Jamaican language has made her the target of hostility from critics, many of whom insist on spreading the false rumour that academics are trying to keep down poor people’s children by preventing them from being able to read or speak English, thus ensuring that they are unable to function outside of Jamaica. This is such a blatant misrepresentation of the various positions expressed that one wonders if its adherents are deliberately  trying to deceive or just haven’t bothered at inform themselves about the issues on which they opine so loudly.

There are several issues that we can debate. Should patois be an official language? Should it be used in official spaces


such as Parliament? Should it be used to help instruct children in the classroom and if so, to what extent and to what level?   

Jamaican Parliament
Photo by DJ Miller

What is not at all controversial however is that all Jamaicans should be fluent in English. In all my years of reading and doing interviews on this issue, I have never heard anyone suggest the contrary. It’s a bright red herring artfully drawn across the debate to drum up support for the opposition to giving patois any kind of official recognition, even if this would benefit many of our people.

In fact, Cooper said clearly in her September 14, 2008 column, in calling for more respect for the Jamaican language:

Of course, the international appeal of our Jamaican language does not mean that we don’t have to be fluent in other languages. Far from it. We must ensure that every single Jamaican child is taught English efficiently. I have to keep reminding my simple-minded critics that I teach English for a living. The fact that I value my mother tongue doesn’t make me devalue other languages.”

No one who opens his or her eyes and looks around can deny that patois-speakers are routinely discriminated against in this country. Just observe some of the transactions in our banks, government offices, and courts, where people perfectly capable of speaking patois often refuse to do so despite the clear evidence that the person they are speaking to either does not understand them, or understands them imperfectly.

I’m convinced by now that the misrepresentations being spread, and eagerly latched onto by so many, go back to the class issue. One of the problems with the patois debate, in fact, is the several layers and complex issues involved, including colour, class, money, history, education, and the power of language.

 In our All Angles programme on this issue, Devonish explained that patois has low status in Jamaican society. You can view that programme here:

The Language Education Policy of the Ministry of Education refers to the status issue thus:

“SJE (Standard Jamaican English), the official language, is used in formal settings. Symbolising high status and prestige, it is, however, the language of a small minority.  Jamaican Creole, the language of the overwhelming majority of the descendants of slaves, has traditionally had little status, no acceptability in official and formal contexts, and is commonly referred to as Patois, the French term for a low-status dialect.”

We make fun of the days when Jamaicans used to visit the United States for a week and think it necessary to return home with new clothes, cornflakes and an American accent. But how far have we progressed?

Why the contemptuous and disgusted rejection of suggestions to make patois an official language if not an unwillingness to recognize its value and worth? So what if nobody else in the world speaks patois? Is that a reason for us not to value our own language? And again, valuing Jamaican does not mean devaluing English. Let me say that again, as it is one of the biggest misconceptions prevalent in the debate. Believing that patois, and patois-speakers should be treated with more respect, does not equate to a belief that English is either unimportant or unnecessary. Other countries have been able to understand this.

I’m not aware of any country apart from Wales, for example, where Welsh is spoken. Far from trying to devalue Welsh, there have been strenuous attempts to preserve the language, which is spoken by just over 20% of the population, according to a 2004 survey by the Welsh Language Board. Compare that to the much higher prevalence of patois-speakers in Jamaica.


The National Eisteddfod, an annual celebration of Welsh culture, conducted in Welsh Photo by Arwel Parry, Wikimedia Commons

Vocal language advocacy resulted in the passage of the 1967 Welsh Language Act which gave more recognition to the language. That legislation was updated in 1993 after continued advocacy, and in 2010, another law was passed to promote Welsh, including providing for the creation of a Language Commissioner, to enforce the provisions of the law, such as a requirement that government entities make services available in Welsh.

First Minister Carwyn Jones was quoted by the BBC in a story dated 7 December 2010 as saying that:

“Although legislation alone is not enough, this measure provides us with some of the tools we need to ensure that the Welsh language can continue to prosper into the 21st Century, alongside the English language.” (emphasis added)

When the United Nations declared 2008 the International Year of Languages, the Director General of UNESCO said:

“Thousands of languages – though mastered by those populations for whom it is the daily means of expression – are absent from education systems, the media, publishing and the public domain in general.

We must act now as a matter of urgency. How? By encouraging and developing language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its first language, or mother tongue, as widely and as often as possible, including in education, while also mastering a national or regional language and an international language. Also by encouraging speakers of a dominant language to master another national or regional language and one or two international languages. Only if multilingualism is fully accepted can all languages find their place in our globalized world.”

It would be hard to say it better.

Remember, you can watch our discussion of the issue of Patois in the Classroom on All Angles here.


Dionne Jackson Miller hosts Beyond the Headlines, a weekday current affairs programme on RJR 94 FM, and All Angles, a weekly programme on TVJ.

Please also check out other related and interesting posts by Annie Paul over at Active Voice,  and of course by Carolyn Cooper at Woman Tongue.  Incidentally, after I wrote my post I saw that Annie Paul had also used the word “wars’ to describe the controversy!

Photo by Stuart Miles at


Social Media and Journalism in Jamaica – Where Are We Headed?

Free twitter badge
Free twitter badge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There isn’t any question that social media have changed journalism for good, across the world and in Jamaica. The questions now, perhaps, are how extensive that change has been, and what the media landscape will look like in the future.

The creation of the Internet, the democratization of access to publication, the instant access it created for thousands of citizen journalists to reach an international audience, all laid the groundwork for permanent change.

Think of Jamaica just twenty years ago. In the days before the Internet, and in a restricted media landscape, newsrooms could take their time getting news to the public. Events that took place in the evening probably wouldn’t make it into print until two days later. After all, if it wasn’t in the Gleaner, or on JBC and RJR, there was no other way for the public to get their news. Those with access to shortwave radio could hear international news, but local news dissemination was dependent on the local media giants.

How times have changed! With scores of ordinary people likely to be live-tweeting from anywhere and everywhere, traditional media houses have to be racing to keep up.

Consider this statement by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Freidman:

“I covered the Republican convention, and I was impressed in watching my Times colleagues at how much their jobs have changed. Here’s what a reporter does in a typical day: report, file for the Web edition, file for The International Herald Tribune, tweet, update for the Web edition, report more, track other people’s tweets, do a Web-video spot and then write the story for the print paper. You want to be a Times reporter today? That’s your day. You have to work harder and smarter and develop new skills faster.”

Barbara Blake Hannah said on my Facebook page that:

“The day of traditional media is over, just like writing with pen and paper. Look at how the report of Alpanso Cunningham’s gold medal reached FB at least a day before newspapers and TV carried the story. The power wielded by the traditional media has now passed democratically into the hands of ‘the people.’

Before we rush to sound the death knell for traditional media, however, consider that firstly, much of the news coming from the Paralympics and the blow-by-blow descriptions of Buju Banton’s trial was reported by journalists

English: Mug shot of Buju Banton.
English: Mug shot of Buju Banton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

working for traditional media houses using social media to get the news first to their online products, before sending it on to their print or broadcast editions.

In addition, many people do still recognize that traditional media regard themselves as having a responsibility to fact check stories, something often not done by tweeters and posters, so even people who get news from social media (and who doesn’t nowadays?) often still look to traditional media houses for verification.

The two most infamous examples of false reports which spread rapidly thanks (?) to social media were the repeated claims that Buju Banton had been freed, and that Kartel had escaped.

Allan Rickards expressed the desire for verification  in his FB post when he said that:

“It is not news for me until it is confirmed in the traditional media…far too often the so-called social media is a hotbed of rumour/propaganda.”

I suggest that what we are seeing is a convergence of the old and the new. Will newsprint and the traditional radio and TV newscasts become obsolete with the increasing production of news-on-demand? We may be heading there, but I don’t think it’s something we should dread. New technologies have always transformed the means of communication. From papyrus and the slate to the keyboard, from the fountain pen to the stylus, technological developments have improved the ability to communicate with the public.

Mark you, I am sure there were naysayers who hated the idea of printing presses which would produce thousands of books that anyone could read.

“What about the job security of the men who write the books by hand?” I can hear them asking. “This is going to lead to mass unemployment!”

Or when paper was developed, there was probably someone getting up in meetings and objecting on the basis that the rivers would become overrun with weeds if they weren’t being harvested to make papyrus.

Photo by nattavut at

This article in the Economist, looks at the evolution of the relationship between social and traditional media, from the days when a senor news executive felt able to make the derisive comment that a blogger was just someone “in his living room in his pyjamas writing what he thinks” to the present day when social media are seen as “a valuable adjunct to traditional media.”

The writer chronicles how the story about the death of Osama Bin Laden developed on Twitter for example, and how social media helped spread the massive story of the Arab spring.

“Thanks to the rise of social media, news is no longer gathered exclusively by reporters and turned into a story but emerges from an ecosystem in which journalists, sources, readers and viewers exchange information,” said the Economist.

Jamaican media houses have recognized the importance of not being left behind. The Press Association of Jamaica now has an award for on-line journalism, and newsrooms are trying to ensure that they break stories on social media, instead of playing catch-up to on-line-only outlets.

At this stage I have no idea what the future will look like. After all, I’m now in love with an E-reader which I never thought possible! See my post on my new-found love for E-readers here.

The Huffington Post has proven that online media products can be successful. The old models are doubtless being transformed as we speak, but I hardly think there will be an end to journalism or jobs for journalists. What those jobs look like has already changed significantly, and is likely to change still further. But then, as the New York Times’ Friedman says, “Any form of standing still is deadly.”

The Jamaica Broilers Fair Play Awards is being held Tuesday, September 11 and will highlight the importance of social media. Perhaps the featured speaker Saadiq Rodgers-King , a successful social media entrepreneur, will have some ideas about what the future will look like. If he does, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Disclosure – I’ll be participating in the function.


Five Things We Can Learn From the US Presidential Campaign

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s campaign season in the United States and US President Barack Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney are edging closer to election day. Many Jamaicans are following the campaign and enjoying the spectacle. While we do so, there are some things we can take from the Americans.

1. “Democracy doesn’t have to be a blood sport.” – This was said by former US President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. Well, the truth is that US politics is often vicious, and campaigns can leave blood in the water. Given how close this election could be, it will be interesting to see if the Obama campaign can stick to the high ideal expressed by Clinton. The thing is though, he was speaking figuratively. Too often for us in Jamaica, those words could be taken literally. Yes, we’ve come a far way in curbing political violence, but we’re not there yet.

2. Lay it all out there. The candidates are subjected to a thorough vetting process. Between debates, media interviews, town hall meetings, it’s hard for candidates to dodge the issues and the tough questions. Too often our politicians manage to do just that. Between releasing manifestos on the very eve of the election, and restricting media interviews, too many politicians are able to slide into office without us having any clear idea of their positions on major issues, or without having those positions subjected to rigorous analysis and scrutiny.

3. Debates are good. The US Presidential candidates debate extensively at the primary stage and there are debates between the presidential nominees and even a vice-presidential debate. In fact, some people were complaining that the Republicans debated too much! Part of that of course, is

Mitt Romney & The Republican Team Event
Mitt Romney & The Republican Team Event (Photo credit: mnassal)

due to their wanting to make an impact in the different states. We don’t have that issue, and we are a whole lot smaller. Still, we could do more. It’s good that we do have political debates, but it would be nice to see us step it up. Three leadership debates, for example, would be a good start, with different formats for each. Also, the public should be able to see the candidates for party leadership debate. The argument that party leadership elections are an internal matter is clearly nonsense, as the parties then use the parliamentary structure to catapult the new leader into the position of Prime Minister, as we saw with both the PNP’s Portia Simpson-Miller and the JLP’s Andrew Holness.

4. Country first. Whatever  problems you may have with the Americans (and the list is probably endless) one does get a deep sense of commitment to country from their candidates. Love of country and patriotism is one of the  things the Americans do best. Too often, from our politicians, I get a clear sense of party first.

5. Campaign reform is hard. Big money has always wielded a heavy influence in politics, and the US’s efforts to limit that influence have had very mixed results. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try. But we should study their history closely. At the very least, we may be able to get an understanding of what doesn’t work.

PNP’s Posturing on the CCJ Unhelpful

Caribbean Court of Justice logo
Caribbean Court of Justice logo (Photo credit: Mark Morgan Trinidad B)

Today I’m blogging over at I did a follow-up to my first piece on Jamaica and the Caribbean Court of Justice, where I had said that Jamaica is in limbo on the issue.

Today I’m saying that the PNP’s posturing on the CCJ matter  has been unnecessarily antagonistic and is unlikely to be at all helpful in fulfilling what they say is their goal, replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica’s final court of appeal. Check out my post here.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑