Gender gap found in reproductive knowledge, attitudes and behavior in Jamaica

July 30, 1998

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC  When it comes to sex, girls and boys in Jamaica have very different perspectives.

A longitudinal study of young adolescents, conducted over a three-year period as part of the Women's Studies Project of Family Health International (FHI), asked 945 young people ages 11 to 14 about their knowledge, attitudes, and behavior regarding sexual activity. Girls and boys who were considered to be at high-risk of early sexual activity were interviewed three times during the study. Some also participated in focus group discussions. Research was conducted by the Fertility Management Unit of the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, with technical assistance from FHI.

The mean age of study participants was 12.2 years when they entered the study. Researchers found that the majority of boys in the first survey (64 percent) -- but only 6 percent of the girls -- reported they were sexually experienced. Among young adolescents who reported they were sexually active, the mean age at first sex was 9.4 years for boys and 10.9 years for girls. A girl's first sexual partner was likely to be almost three years older than she was, whereas a boy's first partner was a little more than one year older than he was. The difference in sexual activity may be due to some boys exaggerating the extent of their sexual experience, and girls being reluctant to reveal that they had engaged in intercourse, researchers said. Curiosity and love were the most common reasons adolescents gave for having sex.

On the survey, most students disapproved of an adolescent having sexual intercourse outside an established romantic relationship. However, many felt that sex was required or expected in certain situations. In June 1997, 57 percent of boys and 24 percent of girls shared the opinion that "if you really love your boyfriend or girlfriend, you should have sex with them." Many adolescents, particularly boys, thought that a girl should have sex with a boy who spent a lot of money on her. And boys thought it was girls' responsibility to say no to sex, not theirs. "She want to have sex with me? Sir, me would have sex," one boy said during focus group discussions.

When asked how they would feel after losing their virginity, girls said they would be "sad" and "embarrassed." Some girls expressed fear that their parents would throw them out of the house and their boyfriends would panic and desert them if they became pregnant. According to girls in focus group discussions, a mother would severely punish a daughter discovered to be sexually active. And a girl's peers are likely to react with taunts. "Them would a call her sketel [slut]," a girl declared. For boys, however, loss of virginity was considered a sign of maturity and status. "Him a go tell him friend Him tell relative and cousin and friend and everybody!" said one boy. Both boys and girls were aware of the economic and emotional responsibilities of parenthood and generally considered teenage pregnancy an unplanned and unhappy event. However, study participants said girls who become pregnant should be allowed to return to school.

In focus group discussions, young people indicated that they were aware of family planning and knew where to get condoms. They also knew about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. However, their knowledge was often inaccurate, and knowing about family planning did not result in the consistent use of contraceptives. Among sexually experienced students, 65 percent of the girls and 30 percent of the boys used contraception at first sex.

Adolescents said there were a number of reasons for their failure to use contraception, including lack of information and difficulty in obtaining methods. For a girl, using contraception was an acknowledgment that she was engaging in sexual activity, a forbidden behavior at her age. Some boys had heard that sex was less pleasurable with a condom.

Researchers concluded that gender norms -- the roles prescribed by society as appropriate for boys and for girls -- influence the sexual behavior of young people. At an early age, girls learn that sexual activity is something secret and shameful, while boys are taught that sex brings pleasure and status.

Previous studies have shown that some Jamaican adolescents are sexually active by their early teens, so this study was conducted to understand better the perspectives of young adolescents. Pregnancy rates among adolescents in Jamaica are among the highest in the Caribbean. About 40 percent of Jamaican women become pregnant at least once by age 19, and 85 percent of these pregnancies are unintended.

Knowledge gained from the study resulted in a number of recommendations aimed at improving adolescent reproductive health:

  • Given that young people have sexual experiences at a very early age, family life education programs should be part of the school curriculum before puberty. Young people need to have accurate information about the health, emotional, and economic risks of unplanned pregnancy.
  • Family life educational programs should take into account the different experiences of boys and girls and the important role gender norms play in shaping the attitudes and behavior of adolescents.
  • Family planning and other reproductive health services should be more accessible to young people.
  • Information, education, and counseling should reinforce adolescents' own views that young people should get an education and a job before they become parents.
  • Policy-makers should continue their strong commitment to address the issue of teen pregnancy.
  • Girls who become mothers should be encouraged to return to school. Programs for adolescent mothers, such as the island-wide program administered by the Women's Center of Jamaica Foundation, should be expanded.

The research in Jamaica was part of a five-year international project conducted in 10 countries and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The goal of the Women's Studies Project research was to understand the impact of family planning on women's lives. Researchers in this study include Ms. Jean Jackson, Ms. Amy Lee and Ms. Joan Leitch of the Fertility Management Unit of the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica, and Dr. Elizabeth Eggleston of FHI.

FHI is a US-based, not-for-profit organization that provides the highest quality research, education and services in family planning, STDs/HIV and family health to improve the health and well-being of populations worldwide.