Young and Loveless
* This is the second article in a series of stories for Child Month, focusing on some of Jamaica’s most vulnerable adolescents and young people. All names have been changed for confidentiality.
KINGSTON, 13 May, 2013 – Theresa speaks with her eyes. They dance in tandem with her hands when she talks about the future she wants. They look away wistfully as she searches for memories of a mother she never knew. And they fall entirely flat with images of the life she leads at night.
Theresa has sex with men in exchange for money. She is 17.
“I didn’t want to do it. I was just staring,” she says of her first encounter, one year ago. “I was wondering ‘why am I doing this?’ It never felt right, but I had to get a food.”
At the time, Theresa had recently dropped out of school and given birth. She went through a harrowing experience in a children’s home before returning to her household. The expectation of her family was made clear: she had to go out and make a living.
Saddled with adult responsibilities and unarmed with an education or employable skills, Theresa took the advice of an older friend to make money through sex. It was a decision, she told herself, for her own survival – and above that, for her infant daughter.
Theresa has never been proud of her choices. She is soft-spoken, but firm in her convictions; she is far more self-aware now than the younger misguided version of herself. Cradling her chin with one hand, she reflects on the course her life could have taken.
“I feel like if I had my mom around, I would not have gotten pregnant,” she says. “I didn’t have a mommy to hug me up and talk to me and make me feel special. I didn’t have that kind of love. So I started to search for it.”
Theresa looked all over. In the absence of her mother, who died when she was very young, and her father who worked out of town, Theresa tried to form a relationship with her stepmother. They did not get along and she was beaten, violently and repeatedly.
“My first exposure to sex was in Grade 8, when I was 13,” she recalls. The boy was 18. “I loved him, but he didn’t love me. I got hurt. After that I just went from man to man.” The loveless pattern of her young life continued when she got pregnant and sought prenatal care.
“At the health centre, they treat you like nobody. The nurses cuss me, and keep asking ‘why you put yourself in this situation?’ They made me feel so embarrassed and left out.” Theresa wants young mothers to get a more gentle response from health care workers. “They should be more caring, make us feel like somebody. They could say ‘we know you made a mistake, but you don’t have to get here again.’”
While Theresa knows not to search for love from the men who pay her for sex, she still longs for an elusive sense of value. “The worst thing is the way the men look at you, like you are nothing. I see nice women, all dressed up, and I wonder if I am able to have a normal life like that.”
Yet, Theresa is determined to define a new normal for herself. She has found refuge and her biggest support through the National HIV/STI Programme (NHP) of the Ministry of Health. The NHP funds a second-chance education programme in which Theresa is enrolled.
“You know when you have friends and you can really talk to them?” Theresa asks with a wide grin, referring to one of the NHP outreach workers with whom she has become close. “She makes me feel appreciated. Sometimes when I feel down, she says ‘just keep working towards what you want.’”
Theresa also credits her strong will to her one-year old daughter. “I want it to be different for her,” she says. “I want her to have everything she needs, because I didn’t have that. I have to be a role model, set an example and make her look up to me.”
Almost eighteen years into her life, Theresa may be damaged, but she is hardly broken. Her resilience shines when she talks about her plans to go back to school. “This is just a stepping stone to further me,” she says with dazzling eyes. “I am going to make it.”
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UNICEF and Partners in Action
UNICEF Jamaica addresses several challenges facing girls and young women through its Adolescent Health and Empowerment programme. Working closely with the Ministry of Health and other partners, UNICEF supports efforts to build the capacity of healthcare workers to serve adolescents with better quality and more child-friendly services. UNICEF also supports programmes that seek to help adolescents access critical health, second-chance education and protective services.