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This is the second in a series of stories for Child Month, focusing on some of Jamaica’s most vulnerable adolescents and young people. All names have been changed for confidentiality.

Theresa speaks with her eyes. They dance in tandem with her hands as she talks about the future she wants. Her eyes look away wistfully as she searches for memories of a mother she never knew. And they become entirely flat with images of the life she leads at night.

Theresa has sex with men in exchange for money. She is 17.

“I didn’t want to do it when I was just starting,” she says of her first encounter, one year ago.

“I was wondering, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It never felt right, but I had to get a food.”

At the time, Theresa had recently dropped out of school and had given birth to a daughter.

She went through a harrowing experience in a children’s home before returning to her household.

The expectation of her family was made clear: she had a child to take care of so she had to go out and make a living.

Saddled with adult responsibilities and unarmed – without an education or employable skill – Theresa took the advice of an older friend, who was already involved in prostitution, to make money through sex.

Like scores of other teen moms without a marketable skill, prostitution became a means of survival.

It was a decision, she told herself, for her own survival – and above that, for the survival of her infant daughter.

For three to four days each week, Theresa would leave her daughter with a relative while she hit the streets at 7 p.m. working – selling the most valuable thing she possessed, her body, until 4 a.m.

This allowed her to earn between $4,000 and $5,000 each day to meet the needs of her daughter and herself.

Theresa has never been proud of her choices and many of her family members are not aware that this young, diligent mother by day is a street girl by night.

The members of her family who know of her prostitution do not openly admonish her, but she knows, they do not approve.

Her job is also hidden from two key people in her life – her daughter and her boyfriend.


After a year on the streets, Theresa remains soft-spoken, but firm in her convictions to forge ahead. She is far more self-aware now than the younger misguided version of herself.

Cradling her chin with one hand, she reflects on the course her life could have taken.

“I feel like if I had my mom around, I would not have gotten pregnant,” she says. “I didn’t have a mommy to hug me up and talk to me and make me feel special. I didn’t have that kind of love. So I started to search for it.”

Theresa looked all over for love.

In the absence of her mother, who died when she was very young, and her father, who worked out of town, Theresa tried to form a relationship with her stepmother.

They did not get along and the teenager was beaten, violently and repeatedly.

“I would rather stay in school. [I would] rather have an understanding relationship with my stepmother and the people who made me feel appreciated and happy,” said Theresa, reflecting on a life hardened with the realities that face so many young girls in Jamaica.

“My first exposure to sex was in grade eight, when I was 13,” she recalls. The boy was 18.

“I loved him, but he didn’t love me. I got hurt. After that, I just went from man to man.” The loveless pattern of her young life continued when she got pregnant and sought prenatal care.

“At the health centre, they treat you like nobody. The nurses cuss me, and keep asking ‘Why you put yourself in this situation?’ They made me feel so embarrassed and left out.”

Theresa wants young mothers to get a more gentle response from health-care workers.

“They should be more caring, make us feel like somebody. They could say, ‘We know you made a mistake, but you don’t have to get here again’.”


While Theresa knows that love will never come from the men who pay her for sex, she still longs for an elusive sense of value.

“The worst thing is the way the men look at you, like you are nothing. I see nice women, all dressed up, and I wonder if I am able to have a normal life like that.”

According to Theresa, she has been threatened but never physically harmed.

“It’s very scary because you never know what’s coming and who you are dealing with.

“Lots of times the men don’t want to use condoms, but I have to use them. I don’t want to die.”

Older prostitutes have reported instances where their clients “beat them up” and take back the money after paying.

In one case in the Corporate Area, the prostitute had her throat cut by a client. She died in the abandoned lot where she had sold her sexual favours.

Faced with these possibilities, Theresa is determined to define a new norm for herself.


She has found refuge and support through the National HIV/STI Programme (NHP) of the Ministry of Health.

The NHP, one of a range of services offered by the health ministry for teenagers in trouble, funds a second-chance education programme in which Theresa is enrolled.

“You know when you have friends and you can really talk to them?” Theresa asks with a wide grin, referring to one of the NHP outreach workers with whom she has become close.

“She makes me feel appreciated. Sometimes when I feel down, she says, ‘Just keep working towards what you want’.”

Theresa also credits her strong will to her one-year-old daughter. “I want it to be different for her,” she says. “I want her to have everything she needs, because I didn’t have that. I have to be a role model, set an example and make her look up to me.”

Her determination to prevent her daughter from having to move into a life of prostitution is a driving force for Theresa.

Data from the latest National Knowledge, Attitudes, Behaviours and Practices Survey indicate that participation in sex for favours or money (transactional sex) increased in the 15-24 age group from 39 per cent in 2008 to 43 per cent in 2012.

Females ages 10-19 are almost three times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys of the same age.

Almost 18 years into her life, Theresa may be damaged, but she is hardly broken. Her resilience shines when she talks about her plans to go back to school. “This is just a stepping stone to further me,” she says with dazzling eyes. “I am going to make it.”

The Gleaner is presenting this series in partnership with UNICEF Jamaica which addresses several challenges facing HIV+ adolescents and young women through its Adolescent Health and Empowerment programme.

Working closely with the Ministry of Health and other partners, UNICEF advocates for the provision of more adolescent-friendly policies and services to reduce vulnerability and infection rates among young populations.

UNICEF also supports the provision of school-based sexual and reproductive health education, and programmes by government agencies and NGOs that seek to provide care and treatment for most at-risk populations.

To talk about the ‘We Matter Too’ Child Month series online, follow UNICEF on Twitter: @UNICEF_Jamaica and join the conversation using the #WeMatterToo hashtag; like UNICEF Jamaica on Facebook; visit the website:


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