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Jamaica: Gender-fair schools stem boys' anger

©UNICEF Jamaica/2005/Stark-Merklein
Oxford Remedial School in Kingston is a boys' school, attended by only one girl. Teachers here make it a point to treat the children with affection and respect.

While the debate on male underachievement and violence in the Caribbean continues, remedial schools and fathers in Jamaica are tackling root causes of boys’ behaviour.

KINGSTON, Jamaica/NEW YORK, USA, 14 November 2005 – School life for boys and girls at Children First in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, is very different from most other schools. Here, students have a say in rules and sanctions, evaluate their teachers’ and director’s performance and make recommendations for faculty behaviour.

The Children First programme caters to children that dropped out or never attended school and are bruised by marginalization, low self-esteem and violence in their communities.

“Participation is the key to empowering the children, to boost their self-confidence,” says Vandrea Thompson, Assistant Director at the non-profit community action organization, adding “they must learn to tell themselves ‘I’m important, I’m special, I can, I will’.”

Almost two thirds of the 975 children in the UNICEF-supported programme are boys. According to Ms. Thompson, most of the youth grow up without a father as many men “are in prison, dead due to violence, or don’t care.”

Experts have long linked male underachievement to exposure to violence in childhood which, in turn, is associated with aggression in adulthood. In Jamaica, corporal punishment is still used and if a child doesn't get it at school they will get it at home.

© UNICEF Jamaica/2005/Stark-Merklein
Boys in Oxford Remedial School's multi-grade class enjoy a break after a music lesson.

Legislation to regulate basic schools, passed in early 2005, imposes a $250,000 fine for beating children. But for many students, school is still a humiliating and punishing place.

Eighteen-year old Damian* dropped out because he didn’t perform well academically and because he didn’t get along with the teachers. He wanted them to hear what he had to say and to explain what he didn’t understand, but they kept shouting instead. When he saw a boy beaten with a belt by a teacher and then retaliate with a chair, he stopped going to school.

Studying at Children First has inspired Damian’s ambition to become an architect. But he is realistic. “One of my big fears is anger,” he says. “That I won’t be able to overcome my anger.”

Lagging behind

Unlike most developing countries where girls are lagging behind, The Caribbean’s concern is low academic achievement among boys.

UNESCO estimates that in Jamaica, 95% of girls and 94% of boys are in primary school, but only 88% of males make it to grade 5, compared to 93% of females. Only 10% of males go to university compared to 25% of females. The adult literacy rate is 84 for males and 91 for females.

“If boys are in school and they work hard, they do excel and achieve just as well as girls.” says Dr. Barry Chevannes, professor of social anthropology at the University of the West Indies, in a recent interview for UNICEF’s upcoming Gender Achievements and Prospects in Education report. “So the question is their under-participation,” he adds.

©UNICEF Jamaica/2005/Stark-Merklein
Students at Children First in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica, outside their classroom.

Gender socialization

According to Dr. Chevannes, socialization within the home and community teaches girls obedience, cooperation and other skills that help them fit into school routines, while boys are allowed, and expected, to fend for themselves and be active, thus they are less suited for strict school discipline.

Teachers at Oxford Remedial School in Kingston, a project of the National Initiative for Street Children, try to influence parenting practices. They ask parents of their 8 to 18-year old students – almost all male – not to beat the boys and instead be more affectionate. “The children crave to be hugged by us,” says Una Williams, coordinator of the project. “They say that at home, they only get shouted at.”

Community violence

It is even more difficult to shelter the children from community violence. Every Monday morning, Ms. Williams sits down with the students and lets them talk about the shootings over the weekend in their communities so that they can articulate their fears. According to Ms. Williams, one of the students lives in an area where people spend many nights under their bed for fear of stray bullets.

Breaking the cycle

Research at the University of the West Indies has shown that once self-esteem in teachers, parents and students is raised, anger is dissipated, academics improve and violence is reduced.

Government measures such as the Child Care and Protection Act 2004, enforced by the Child Development Agency, makes reporting of child abuse cases mandatory, and the newly formed Early Childhood Commission regulates national early childhood services and sets strict standards for the treatment of children.

Most importantly, men are organizing in response to stereotypes of males as irresponsible fathers. They run seminars to sensitize fathers and to attract positive publicity to fatherhood. One of the first fathers groups was founded by Dr. Chevannes in 1991.

Student participation and teaching methods such as those practiced by Children First and Oxford Remedial School are setting a trend to follow.

Don’t forget the girls

For Ms. Williams, early stimulation, nutrition and educating girls have the greatest impact. “You have to educate the girls,” she says, “before they become mothers, so that they understand what children need.”



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