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  • Claire McFarlane

Jamaica left me broken

Beneath the paradise and why Jamaica left me broken

Do you think child sexual abuse is wrong? I really hope your answer is yes. If it is, then let's start looking beneath the surface. When I shared I was running in Jamaica, lots of people replied, 'oh it's amazing there. Paradise. Life is so chill...reggae, ganga and beautiful beaches.’

Yup, on the surface. But it sure ain't the reality for the locals, and definitely not the children. Don't get me wrong. There are some amazing aspects to Jamaica, it's just not what I was there for.

I spent a week in Jamaica and picked three locations to stay during my visit: Kingston (the Capital), Negril (where I ran) and Montego Bay (in the north and a major cruise ship hub). In each location, I stayed with locals and was able to talk with various professionals and services. This was no easy feat to arrange because all my initial attempts to connect had been rejected. Let’s say I’ve learnt a thing or two running in 50+ countries and polite persistence pays off.

My time in Jamaica was tough going.

Brutal could be a better word and a discussion early on in my visit left me feeling shattered...the person told me in no uncertain terms that my skin colour was a problem, that I had no relevancy or understanding in the Jamaica context, and that a rape survivor's trauma is the same as all other trauma. Ouch, what a slap in the face. I wanted to run out of the room, instead, I dug deep to calm my inner agitation and tried to look at things from this woman’s perspective. I wanted a better understanding of what lies 'beneath the paradise'.

Jamaica’s history is difficult with the harsh scars of slavery. The discontent of British rule still lingers heavily in people minds and words. Extreme poverty, crime and corruption are also a major concern and many locals live hand to mouth (meaning they earn only enough to buy food for that day).

When it comes to talking with people in leadership, the general discourse is Jamaica doesn't want outsiders from the west making comments or suggestions of any kind regarding how things function. It is seen as meddling. Apparently, government is uninterested in engaging with individuals like me (regardless of the amazing work that Footsteps To Inspire has achieved so far). There is a lot of distrust. I get it. Coming from South Africa and having seen the horror of apartheid, I totally recognise why I was not welcomed with open arms.

Remain humble and approach each country as an observer are two significant lessons I learnt early in the Footsteps To Inspire journey.

Each country is so unique and faces their own set of challenges. I find that sharing my story is often enough to build trust. It opens a dialogue where we can exchange experiences, ideas and find ways to adapt solutions for different context. I hoped to apply this same approach in Jamaica.

Happily for me, my polite persistence paid off and I was able to connect with some incredible women and organisations paving the way for change. The Women’s Centre invited me to share my story with the girls they help. These girls are all young mums or mums to be. The centre offers them a chance to continue their education while pregnant. It was an amazing experience sharing with the girls and they asked such pertinent questions around healing and recovering from rape. The sad part to these types of questions is it means some of the girls have faced rape.

A huge thumbs-up to Jamaica for the Women’s Centre.

In many countries I've visited, girls who become pregnant are denied their education and it’s a major reason why they drop out of school (and in non-western society, rarely have the chance to go back). In up to half of the cases I’ve seen, the girls were pregnant because of rape. The Women's Centre shows us that it is possible to navigate this situation giving pregnant girls a shot at a better future.

Claire McFarlane talking with pregnant girls at the Women's Centre in Jamaica

Another highlight of my polite persistence was an invitation to guest lecture at the University of the West Indies (UWI).

Did I mention ‘guest lecture’?

What an honour and what an experience. This is where it is at as far as I’m concerned. I believe reaching young people at university is how we get to make critical change. Their minds are young enough to accept new ideas yet mature enough to grasp the why and make things happen. The lecturer who runs the course in Montego Bay is an expert around the topic of gender and sexual health. I really like her no taboo, inclusive approach to teaching and I learnt so much talking with her.

I ran in Jamaica on Saturday, 15 February 2020 along 7-Mile Beach in Negril.

It was a solo run - though not unexpected. It’s a beautiful beach lined with tourist hotels and flagged on either end with beaches for locals. I ran super early in the morning because it felt safer and I could avoid being harassed. Men solicit women here nonstop. I had so many offers of sex and drugs I lost count.

Jamaica rocked me to the core and challenged me on a whole new level.

Despite the hard start, I had enriching conversations, reached many young people and was shown sincere kindness. Jamaica also left me a little bit broken. I don’t lay blame on Jamaica for this. I feel it has been coming for a while. It’s been a build up of countries and hearing the struggle that children are facing around the world. And believe me, there is no country where children are safe from sexual abuse. It has left me questioning everything I’m doing and the impact I can make with Footsteps To Inspire. It has left me with a burning question...what more can I do to bring a stop to the sexual violation of children and young people?

You can help with this!

Donate if you want to see Footsteps To Inspire reach more countries and find solutions to end sexual violence.

Show your support and join me for the next stay at home challenge

And, if you want to know what I learnt in Jamaica…keep reading.

Some of it will shock you. Please know this is not unique to Jamaica. Much of what happens here, happens in more than 50% of the world, especially the child abuse. No country is safe from this, and some of the highest risk is in the western world.

😓 Child sexual abuse is rampant.

👉Girls are being exposed to sexual acts as young as 4 years old.

👉 HIV is a serious problem.

👉 Schools have an abstinence policy yet most children are sexually active from 10/11 years old.

👉 Teenage pregnancy is high. Lots of young girls are engaging in survival sex.

👉 To be a man in Jamaica, violence and disrespect towards women is essential. At all costs a man must not appear homosexual.

👉Homophobia is a problem here.

👉 Monogamy is not a reality.

👉There is a lot of distrust. Women are hating on men. Men are hating on women. Women are hating on women.

👉 Women are working hard so they can be independent.

👉 Men will give a man a job over a woman but it's not man-ly to seek a tertiary education. 41% of men are illiterate in Jamaica.

👉 Children are told if they talk about being raped they will die. You must not talk about this kind of thing.

👉Girls are vulnerable.

👉 Boys are being sexually abused by older women. A boy's first sexual encounter may be with a 'big girl'. It's seen as normal whether a boys wants it or not.

👉 Dancehall music encourages violence, abuse, violent sex, drugs, alcohol. Dancehall is part of youth culture.

🌟 The children I spoke with want something different. They want tools to cope and recover. They want a better future.

🌟 Most adults I spoke with had put up a barrier, toughness, it's about survival. Healing isn't talked about much.

👉 NGOs struggle to get funding.

🙌 On a positive, government does provide lots of services but their approach is 'do as you are told' and that everything is fine. It doesn't feel like things are fine.

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