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Jamaica: sex and self-deception

Sunday, October 12, 2014
Outside Track

Failed state? That’s going it a bit. But if we have a category of “not massively successful state,” Jamaica fits like a glove. For the past week, the Gleaner has been running reports on a survey completed last month by pollster Bill Johnson. Almost three-quarters of the 1,200-strong sample said Jamaica is heading in the wrong direction. Fewer than one in ten say it’s moving the right way, with the rest down as “don’t knows.” 

Portia Simpson Miller’s government swept to power not quite three years ago. It now faces a bad case of mid-term blues. The main problems? Two-thirds put economic difficulties top of the list—unemployment, poverty or a lack of money. One-third said crime. Corruption is a worry. But based on the survey, Jamaica’s real hang-ups are about sex.

Three months ago, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde gave a strong report card to Portia’s IMF programme. But Jamaicans are feeling the pinch. Portia has 30 months at most to play with. There won’t be much scope for handouts. The Bank of Jamaica reports GDP growth of just 0.9 per cent. That’s in the same lacklustre range Jamaicans have come to know and love for the past 40 years. The IMF warns of “reform fatigue.” 

Bill Johnson asked respondents what proportion of those who run their lives are “corrupt and should be fired.” The median answer was 70 per cent of elected politicians; 50 per cent of government employees; and 80 per cent of the police force. There’s plenty of anger there. 

What about justice? Almost all the sample—96 per cent—think the legal system treats poor people less well than the rich. And a huge majority—95 per cent—think rich and poor should get equal treatment. But fair treatment should not extend to all Jamaicans, apparently. Two-thirds of the sample said gay men and lesbians should not have the same rights as other citizens within the Jamaican legal system. 

Meanwhile, 82 per cent said gay men are currently treated unfairly by the legal system and police. So, that’s alright, then? Nice. And 91 per cent want to keep the ten-year prison sentence for “the abominable crime of buggery.” Abortion? There’s a clear answer here, too. Keep it illegal, keep it unsupervised, keep it unsafe. At present, there’s a life sentence in prison for a woman who has an abortion. Rape? Incest? Same law. 

And 69 per cent of the sample want to keep it that way. If “the mother endures pain, that is part of the cross,” says the elderly Richard Ho Lung, founder of the Catholic Missionaries of the Poor. Jamaica, he says, is fending off a “definite push on the part of the evil one.”

Pain there is, aplenty. “I have seen many women coming into my office bleeding,” the Health Ministry’s director of health promotion, Dr Kevin Harvey, told the Jamaica Observer last year.

Sex education? More than two-thirds of respondents said it was not just a matter for parents; churches and schools should be involved, too. That’s a bit odd, because three months ago, a lobby group, Jamaicans for Justice was knocked to bits by the media for running a sex education programme in six children’s homes. The Youth and Culture Minister Lisa Hanna asked her lawyers what action she could take against them. But then, Jamaicans for Justice is not a church. So perhaps that’s the problem.

If the churches do take charge of sex education, young Jamaicans may hear some interesting advice. “We tell our young people to keep themselves pure and to not indulge in fondling and other sexual things,” says Pastor Milton Gregory, executive secretary of Jamaica’s Seventh-Day Adventists—Jamaica’s largest religious group, with 12 per cent popular support. He adds: “I believe that kissing is an upstairs invitation to a downstairs situation and it is best to save yourself for your spouse.”

According to the 2001 census, less than a quarter of Jamaican mothers are married. So three-quarters have apparently not heeded the good pastor’s advice. And the schools? Seems like they’re all excited about 11 inches. J

osé Martí High School decrees that girls’ skirts should hang a full 11 inches below the knee. Teachers check skirt length with rulers and send students home if there’s too much flesh showing above the ankle. Fewer than half of that school’s Grade 11 students pass CSEC English. But at least, their calves are well covered. José Martí? Yep, same José; the nineteenth-century modernist writer, and founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which fought for independence from Spain. 

Last month, the Gleaner published pictures of girls from a half-dozen Jamaican schools, all wearing uniforms which looked hideously uncomfortable for the stifling Kingston heat. Victorian-style uniforms won’t get students studying. Telling teenagers not to kiss won’t make them chaste. Jamaica’s outdated buggery laws just make the island look stupid. A legal system which is soft on the wealthy won’t get rid of corruption. And sacking Portia won’t unleash a magic fountain of wealth. 

Polls tell a story: but it’s time, perhaps, for a Jamaican reality check.


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