News and Views by Dionne Jackson Miller

pointed commentary on current affairs in Jamaica and the Caribbean



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 I have instructed that the material be withdrawn from all schools and re-written then redistributed…”

It doesn’t matter if you believe that the law making buggery a criminal offence should be repealed, or if you think Jamaican society is homophobic and more tolerance is needed (or not), or if you are a gay rights activist who wants to see same-sex marriage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


Corporal Punishment in Jamaica Part 2 – What Happens at Home

You've got to be cruel to be kind...
You’ve got to be cruel to be kind… (Photo credit: HA! Designs – Artbyheather)

I got some interesting and heartfelt responses to my first post on corporal punishment in Jamaica, especially in relation to what used to happen in the schools.

In commenting on how students not very quick academically were treated at his primary school Earl said:

“Instead of intellectual stimulation they were mostly treated to the stimulus administered to all parts of their bodies (not just the rear end or the hands) by heavy belts, rulers, sticks, canes or any other convenient implement. Some of these instruments of cruelty were even given names by some teachers, so strong was the bond they attached to their favourite ‘weapon’.

I am still pained by the memory of a particular girl being made to stand on the desk so that her tormentor could be better positioned to beat her around the legs. The strop he used was about four ft long and with each blow it would wrap around her exposed leg and bruise her further as it retracted. But it did not stop there! With each blow he issued a string of invectives, calling her names such as “white pork”. Yes; she was of very light complexion as most the people in that section of St. Elizabeth (mainly of Scottish descent) were.”

This memory came from Vivienne:

“I still remember grade six at primary school when the whole class was caned because one boy did not do his homework. He was not punished. This went on for about a week until the boys beat up the one who refused to do his work. That was apparently the teacher’s strategy. It was a traumatic experience. Teachers should be banned (from) hitting a child point blank.”

A thin, flexible cane designed for corporal pu...
A thin, flexible cane designed for corporal punishment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People’s feelings about corporal punishment in the home, however, are a lot more mixed.

Carmen shared this:

“I think parents should parent with love, care, concern, self-control and discipline. That is what setting a good example means. Each child requires different techniques … beating them to death (or near death) to teach them about life is just plain ridiculous and abusive. Slapping down a child because “yuh jus like you fadda” makes no sense, slap yourself, you chose this no good SOB!! But again a swift swat on the behind is necessary sometimes.”

But Phyllis believes that corporal punishment is always a no-no.

“Parents may indeed rationalize that they were beaten and that they turned out alright- is that really true? This is called fooling oneself.

Teachers and parents have absolutely no need to inflict physical punishment on children- instead, both parents and teachers need to be made aware of the difference between discipline and punishment. …Correction of errant behaviour could take the form of lost privileges, doing work to compensate for what should have been done etc. The outcome of this approach is to cultivate a sense of ownership of one’s actions in the child via showing the strong relationship between logical and natural consequences of actions- positive or negative. This approach develops discipline which everyone needs to take them through life as responsible, productive and principled individuals.”

Many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of the state intervening in how a parent disciplines his/her children. with the caveat that clear cases of child abuse should be prohibited.

This of course is the difficult part. Where do you draw the line? What is ok? Carmen speaks of a swat on the behind. Most people wouldn’t bat an eye at that. Or at a slap on the arm or leg. Once you get beyond that it can get tricky.

Paul said in response to my post on Facebook:

“There is a difference between beatings to keep a child in line and taking out frustration on children with what they called “murderations.” I thank my mother for keeping me and my siblings in line with the rod. God bless her and I thank her for it every day.”

Many Jamaicans echo his sentiments and tell you they were the better for the beatings they received as a child.

The Global Coalition to End all Corporal Punishmentof Children is seeking to end corporal punishment in all settings, including the home.

Map of the world with colour applied to countr...
Map of the world with colour applied to countries with an official prohibition of all forms of corporal punishment of children, based on (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The group’s 2012 Progress Report on the Caribbean stated that:

“A 2004 study involving 1,720 11-12 year olds in Jamaica found that the most common methods adults used to resolve conflicts with children in the home were pushing, grabbing and slapping children (experienced by 86% of children) or beating them with an object (84.2%).

In a later study, also in Jamaica, children described being beaten with objects such as belts, rulers, garden hoses and boards, and in a 2004 study involving 203 parents of 6 year olds, 46.6% stated that physical assault was the most commonly used “disciplinary method” in their homes. Of those reporting physical assault 31.1% reported spanking and 13% beating with an object; other physical assaults included pinching children, shaking them and tying their hands.”

The Report looked at children’s attitudes to corporal punishment and said that:

“In a study involving six focus groups with 60 children aged 7-12 in Jamaica, reported in 2008, children expressed their anger and hurt at physical punishments and revealed their struggle to understand the idea that their parents “beat them because of love.”

When children were asked about how they would behave as parents of the future, some children said they would use more democratic or flexible discipline while others said they wanted to hurt their own children as much as they had been hurt:

“I would give them everything they do to us; I would tape their hands; I would beat them so hard they can’t talk; I would slap the living daylights out of them; I would tie them to the bed, and thump them in their mouth …”

The Coalition notes that the laws governing corporal punishment in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries have their origin in our colonial past.

Bodilo adjusting his culottes after corporal p...
Bodilo adjusting his culottes after corporal punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“As in much of Africa and Asia, corporal punishment of children was promoted and institutionalised across the Caribbean during the colonial period, in the context of military occupation and slavery, in the development of early school and penal systems, and in some Christian missionary teaching.

The legality of corporal punishment across the region has its origins in the laws of colonising European countries. This is visible in the provisions allowing for “reasonable punishment” in the laws of many Caribbean nations, as well as the application of the English common law concept of “reasonable chastisement” in British overseas territories including Anguilla, the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands.”

The group is lobbying for law reform that would remove all legal defences to corporal punishment and for legislation clearly prohibiting corporal punishment, saying that:

“Without explicit repeal of these defences and justifications, children do not have equal protection from assault; laws may exist against violence and abuse of children, but these are not interpreted as prohibiting all corporal punishment.”

The Coalition maintains that although public education is necessary, legislative reform cannot await societal acceptance of the abolition of corporal punishment, arguing that:

“The states which have achieved full prohibition have done so in almost every case despite majority public opinion opposing a ban. On this as on many other social issues, governments must act on the basis of their human rights obligations and professional advice – well ahead of public opinion.

There is no justification for keeping children waiting for a change in the law to confirm their fundamental rights while attempting to change adult attitudes. Nobody would argue that law reform to prohibit all violence against women in the home should await universal anger management courses and full employment for men.”

It’s unlikely that our politicians are likely to grab onto this particular hot potato yet. Let’s be clear, Jamaica has made significant progress on this issue of the beating of children. The nightmare scenarios of vicious beatings in schools recalled by so many Jamaicans are unthinkable today. Thank God for that!

The Education Ministry under the leadership of Andrew Holness acted against the sentiment of a sector of the public in announcing that there is to be no more corporal punishment in schools, and corporal punishment is now legally prohibited for children in the care of the state.

Neighbours will often now call the police if they think children are being beaten excessively, that is, are being subject to what Jamaicans call “murderation.” But what is acceptable remains the subject of debate. Spankings with the palm of the hand? Beatings with a belt? Electric cord? A broomstick? A ten-minute beating? Half an hour? An hour? Where does loving discipline end and abuse begin? Is any type corporal punishment by parents ever acceptable?

These are hard questions. What I think is beyond doubt is that parents need more help. I keep hearing the question “If we are not to beat, what are we to do?” and I think it is a legitimate one.

Parenting is hard work. It is one of the hardest jobs on earth, and some children are much  more challenging than others. We need more resources, more workshops and seminars to help parents cope and to provide ideas on how to parent. Schools and churches can be instrumental here. In many cases, parents don’t choose corporal punishment as a considered method of punishment. Many of us simply don’t know of any other methods of discipline that work.

It’s a difficult issue, but one we need to keep talking about. What are your feelings on corporal punishment in the home?

What My Jamaican Nanny Left Me – The Other Side of the Story

Nurse and Child - Mary Cassatt
Photo - Wikimedia Commons

The Huffington Post published a poignant story about a Jewish man reminiscing about the legacy of love left to him by his Jamaican nanny, a story that’s heartwarming and touching.  Or is it?

The story is indeed well-written and moving. But suppose we read between the lines? The question the story raises for me is whether this is a classic case of a Jamaican woman who was forced through economic circumstances to leave her children back home to raise other people’s children far away. It’s possible that her children were already grown, but the story says she had SEVEN children back in Jamaica and another child in the United States, for whom she prayed every night.

I’m not judging her, or other Jamaicans who feel the need to migrate to support their families. Many feel they have no choice. But the fact is that this has been recognized as a major contributor to our societal problems like juvenile delinquency, and yes, crime.

Coco bread with a Jamaican beef patty
Coco bread with a Jamaican beef patty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when Ross Urken speaks lovingly of the evenings his Jamaican nanny spent reading to him and his sister, ask who is reading to the thousands of kids left motherless back in Jamaica. When he speaks about how she exposed him to Jamaican patties and jerk chicken, ask about the exposure of the children left behind.

Lecturer in Social Work at the University of the West Indies Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown reported on the phenomenon she termed the “barrel children” syndrome in the 1990s.

UNICEF (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A 2007 UNICEF report cited her seminal work as follows:

“As early as 1993, Dr. Claudette Crawford Brown, from the University of the West Indies (UWI) came to the conclusion that the absence of mothers was a key determinant to the involvement of children with violence.

In a survey she found that 80% of children in conflict with the law had their mothers absent, while this was the case for only 30% of other children, and migration was the second most important reason explaining the absence of mothers.”

Those left behind are particularly vulnerable to abuse, which should be of interest, given the recent focus on the sexual abuse of children.

A 2009 UNICEF study on the impact of migration in the Caribbean stated that:

“The impact of parents’ migration on children can be devastating as it threatens the long-term well-being and development of Caribbean adolescents into adulthood…

“Many children left behind suffer from depressions, low self-esteem which can lead to behavioural problems, and (are) at increased risk of poor academic performance as well as interruption of schooling.”

The potential for abuse is especially great when the mother migrates. The study states that:

“According to the evaluation of the Health and Family Life Education programme, 18% of the respondent children (average age of 14.7 yr) experienced forced sex. The vulnerability to abuse significantly increases when a child loses the protection of a parent(s)…

When the mother migrates, abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or neglect is more likely to occur.”

Interesting, although the reason given for migration is to help the family, often the migration of the father impacted the family left behind by reducing the available financial resources with “little remittances coming back …”

Boeing 737
Photo - Wikimedia Commons

The children left behind have been found to suffer a range of psycho-social issues.

“The most common psycho-social problems are feelings of abandonment, sadness, despondence, despair, anger, lack of trust, low self-esteem, and inability to concentrate at school. The abandonment of a parent(s) sometimes has permanent effects on the child’s life, and many spend their entire lives struggling with feelings of rejection and loss.  The many broken promises of reunion with their parents further tend to result in emotional instability.”

The paper concludes that:

“These implications of parents’ migration on children threaten the long-term well-being and development of Caribbean adolescents into  productive adults.”

Many of those issues remain.

Dr. Audrey Pottinger was quoted in the Jamaica Observer in 2008 as saying that she had conducted a small study in which children whose parents had migrated to North America or the United Kingdom, reported feelings of loneliness, anger, anxiety, fear of rejection, abandonment and sadness.

Speaking at a Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) Symposium, she said:

“I compared children who had parents divorced, died or migrated. We found that migratory loss seems to affect more areas of the child’s life compared to divorce and death.”

She found that migration caused mental consequences even though parents stayed in contact with their children and sent money and gifts.

Seventy-seven per cent of the children said they were concerned about who would take care of them once their parents left and 71 per cent had increased somatic illnesses (triggered by depression) after the migration. Forty-five per cent said they did not understand why their parents had migrated, even after family discussions,  and 20 per cent said they were never informed prior to the migration – they just came home one day and were given the news that their parent left.

She noted that there were statistically significant differences in the occurrences of depression in children whose parents migrated compared to those whose parents had not.

“Depression was found significant in both the Trinidad and the Jamaican group,” she said. “In addition, in Jamaica the children were more at risk for suicidal ligation and poor school performance.”

So forgive me if I’m not clicking my heels with joy at the legacy this Jamaican nanny left her American charge. It leaves me wondering about the impact on her Jamaican children. And even if this nanny’s children were all grown and well-functioning adults when she left, it reminds me of the thousands of other children suffering from absent parents. No, this story doesn’t warm my heart. It saddens me.


Links to the UNICEF reports are provided, but for completeness, the citations are:

1. The Impact of International Migration: Children Left Behind in Selected Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Anna Lucia D’Emilio et al. Division of Policy and Planning, UNICEF. 2007.

2. The Impact of Migration on Children in the Caribbean. Caroline Bakker, Martina Elings-Pels and Michele Reis. UNICEF Office for Barbados and Easte

GSAT – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – Part 1



The main difference between the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) and Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) is there are more subjects and more material to study for GSAT. But let us not forget, results day for CEE was just as stressful and traumatic.

That’s because the fundamental question these tests answer is “Which high school will my child attend?” Therein lies the problem, since the test results determine placement at the high school level, and the facilities and reputation of the high schools can vary markedly.

I don’t think that the main problem is the exam itself. The problem is that there are only a handful of high schools that we parents want our children to attend.  Think about it. The desperation to get test scores up over 80% and 90% is almost entirely due to anxiety to get our children into one of the “brand name” schools.

The extra classes starting in Grade Four, the after school, Saturday, Sunday and Christmas classes are fueled primarily by our desire to get our children into their first choice school. (Parents are allowed to select five schools on the GSAT application form. Some are more popular than others and therefore children have to score higher and higher to get into them).

If we were assured that even if our children scored 80%, 70%, 60%, they would still end up going to a school with good facilities, good security, with no apparent problems of criminal gangs operating (yes, that’s what we’ve come to) and one in which we could be sure that their abilities would be nurtured and their potential realized, would we push our children so hard?

If we were convinced that their future did not depend to such a great extent on their GSAT placing, would we be able to relax a bit more, and place a little less stress on them? I make the point about security and gangs because I think that the lure of the “brand name” schools is greater than just academic excellence, it is also their reputation for law and order and a relatively peaceful school environment that attracts parents.

Many of the upgraded high schools have been doing better and better. But we still have a way to go.

So by all means, let’s review GSAT. But until we do more to solve the problem of inequity at the high school level, nothing will change and we will continue to see Grade Six children learning, far too early, the thrill of academic victory and the agony of defeat. 



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