Yasheka Brooks was one of the speakers at the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation's Charity Ball held on last Saturday (May 26) at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston. She was included on the programme as an Alumni of the Women's Centre, a successful student with a story to tell.
She was only 14 when she became pregnant. As she recalls, it happened on the second occasion that she had sex with her boyfriend, who was a star athlete at their high school in Portland. They'd been dating for six months before it happened.
"Being pregnant in high school was devastating; the year 2011 was one of the worst years of my life," she told the enrapt audience as she recounted the isolation felt as well as the "discrimination, emotional turmoil and abuse" she endured when it became clear that she would be another teenaged mother.
"I became depressed to the point that I wanted to hurt myself," she said.
Minister Grange reminded the audience in her address that adolescent pregnancy is a "global issue". UNFPA estimates that across the world 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant each year. And another two million aged 14 and under also become pregnant each year.
The Women's Centre was established in 1978 to help Jamaica deal with adolescent pregnancy. This year, it is celebrating 40 years of life-changing work with more than 46,000 pregnant teenagers — such as Yasheka Brooks — and their babies.
Yasheka had dropped out of high school at grade nine when she enrolled in the Women's Centre location in Port Antonio, Portland. By that time, her "church also took its stance" asking her to "stop taking part in every activity" — she had been the President of the youth group and a head server.
Her family, friends and community were also "very judgmental". In contrast, she found the staff at the Women's Centre to be "kind, loving, caring, understanding" and she was happy to go to the Centre to "stay away from my community in the days to avoid the criticism."
"The Centre changed my life. They taught me that being pregnant was not the end of my life. The also taught me that there was hope in my life and I was the only one who could make my dreams become a reality," said Yasheka.
The Women's Centre helps pregnant teenagers to continue their education through day schools at its locations across the country. It also equips the young mothers (and increasingly the young baby fathers) with skills to take care of their children, including food preparation and garment construction.
As Minister Grange puts it: "The Women's Centre helps the girls to continue their education thereby increasing their job prospects and equipping them with the tools to look after their children and to become good parents."
One important duty of the Women's Centre is to advocate for pregnant mothers to return to the formal secondary school system after the birth of their babies.
Yasheka gave birth to a baby girl and was reintegrated into the high school system through the work of the Women's Centre.
She had been a good student, but was motivated to do even better now, despite the stigma that comes with being an adolescent mother. She was scoring high marks in the 80s and 90s and was placing second or third in her class. By grade ten, she won the Mathematics prize for her cohort and was ready to take two CXC subjects. She passed them. She sat another eight subjects in grade 11. She passed those as well as the two CAPE subjects she took at sixth form.
On account of her good performance and discipline, she was made a prefect and was later nominated for the position of Deputy Head Girl. The nomination was not accepted because she was an adolescent mother. "The selection committee decided that being placed in such a leading position may send the wrong message to the other students, telling them that it was okay to become pregnant in school. This motivated me to work even harder to make sure I passed all my subjects."
Yasheka passed all her subjects with good grades, but she admits that "attending high school as a teenage mother was exceedingly difficult." At night she studied with her child in her arms and went to school in the day, penniless and hungry.
"I remember one day I was so hungry that I could not hear a thing the teacher was saying in clothing and textile class, so I asked to go to the bathroom and I went to drink some water. The water had a lot of chlorine in it. It was as white as snow, however I drank it. Unfortunately, by the time I was near the classroom door I felt nauseous and I had to run back to bathroom. I learnt from experience that chlorine in an empty stomach equals rapid contraction of the stomach walls which eventually results in vomiting."
But she says "hunger became my best friend" and she reads when she's hungry "and this would make my belly full again."
Yasheka was accepted into the nursing programme at Excelsior Community College in 2016. She was unable to pay the full tuition up front, but organised a bake sale and vending from street to street to help her raise funds to pay the tuition and keep up with her expenses.
Through the efforts of the Women's Centre, she obtained a 2017 Scotia GEMS grant of J$50,000 towards her school fees. The Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport also gave her a grant of J$50,000 in 2017 to help with the expenses. But there's still a balance.
Minister Grange has assured Yasheka that the balance will be cleared as the young mother, who has a Grade Point Average of 3.20, must be shown love, compassion and care and given every opportunity to realise her dreams, to look after her family and become an outstanding mother.
The Minister said there were other adolescent mothers struggling to complete their education and they needed support. That is why she recently launched A-STREAM (Advancing Secondary, Tertiary, Remedial Education for Adolescent Mothers). The programme, which will be administered by the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation, will offer mentorship, sponsorship and scholarship to adolescent mothers.