Two Journeys to One Friendship
* This is the first 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, 6 May, 2013 – At age 12, only one person knew Itisha’s painful secret. Her grandmother was a silent witness, making her uncle an empowered rapist. Terrified by the repeated violation of her body, and confused by the quiet accomplice, Itisha trusted no one.
“I put on a plastic smile and told everyone I was good,” she reflects. “I withdrew from everybody. I had nightmares and would get up and cry until daylight sometimes. I did not know who to talk to, so I got out a book. I started writing everything I was feeling.”
Miles away,in another parish, ten-year-old Racquel was facing her own collapse of trust. Her family had just discovered Racquel was raped at age nine, by her stepfather – and infected with HIV as a result. Her mother was furious and adamant: it was all Racquel’s fault.
Raquel went to counselling but didn’t understand what it meant to have the virus. “I was blank at the time,” she says. “I was just thinking of how I had let down my mother and my family. I believed that I was the one who had done something wrong.”
Unknown to both girls at the time, their two separate lives were to be joined by one common fate. Eight years after Itisha began writing in her journal, she found out that she too had been infected with HIV from the sexual abuse.
Racquel and Itisha grew up like many of the island’s young women who are vulnerable to HIV or become infected – lacking critical family support, sexual and reproductive health information and friendly health services. Adolescent girls aged 10-19 are particularly vulnerable to HIV – they are almost three times more likely to become infected than boys of the same age.
Both Racquel and Itisha, now ages 20 and 22, had to navigate their teenage years largely without nurturing family support. Too scared of rejection, Itisha has not told anyone in her family about her HIV status. Racquel’s mother has never talked with her about the rape. “If I cry about it, she will sit and listen,” she laments. “But she will not say anything at all.”
The girls knew very little about sex,sexuality and STIs including HIV, before acquiring the virus and even afterwards. Racquel became pregnant at age 15, the first time she had sex with a boyfriend of the same age, who refused to use condoms.
They have had mixed experiences with the child protection and health care systems. In the 9th grade, Itisha’s friend discovered her journal. “She said to me, ‘I won’t let you stay in this forever’. She told the guidance counsellor and he helped me a lot.” The counsellor called Itisha’s grandmother, informed the Principal and assisted in the case going to court.
When Itisha discovered she was HIV positive years later, she was referred to Mr. Brown, a social worker who has been consistently supportive. “One day last year, I was very depressed and wanted to kill myself. I called Mr. Brown and said, ‘I can’t do this’. He was in a meeting, but he said he would be there in five minutes.” Not only did he show up, he told Itisha the most assuring words she has heard in her life: “I am with you, always.”
Racquel, on the other hand, had less friendly experiences. “When I reported the rape, I had to keep repeating my story to the same person,” she says.“He was always on his computer, typing. He never looked up, never connected with me. I started making excuses not to go.”
Little was redeemed with the social worker assigned to her case. “She was nice when I first met her, when I was very young. But in my teens, she had a bad attitude. She was very demanding and had no respect at all. I would always dodge her.”
Fortunately, Racquel’s luck was to take a turn – and the life-changing friendship of two remarkable young women was to begin. Racquel joined the “I am Alive” UNICEF-supported empowerment programme for teen moms and young women, run by the non-governmental organization Eve for Life. Here, she felt loved, supported and at home.
Not too long after, a counsellor seeing both Racquel and Itisha suggested that they meet,based on their similar experiences in childhood. The two hit it off, and Racquel brought Itisha into the Eve for Life programme. They have since become inseparable.
If anything else is uneven in their lives, their friendship is constant. “We are pure joy,” says Itisha, laughing and exchanging a knowing look with Racquel. “I will come out of my comfort zone for her. She’s always there for me, in good and bad times.”
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UNICEF and Partners in Action
UNICEF Jamaica addresses several challenges facing HIV+ adolescents and young women through its Adolescent Health and Empowerment programme. Working closely with the Ministry of Health and other partners, UNICEF advocates for the provision of more adolescent-friendly policies and services to reduce vulnerability and infection rates among young populations. UNICEF also supports the provision of school-based sexual and reproductive health education, and programmes by government agencies and NGOs that seek to provide care and treatment for most at-risk populations.