A lot of things changed for me that summer before I started high school. I remember waking up to bloodied sheets and thinking I had been bitten by a rat. As avid a reader as I was and as aware as I was of 'period' and puberty I was not prepared to experience it. In fact I somehow thought it would never happen to me- at least not that early. Things were made worse when during that same time my shirts stopped sitting flat against my chest. My clothes becameill-fittingbecause of small protrusions from my chest which left me with the greatest feeling of unease and discomfort. I remember walking around with arms folded under the hem of my shirts as I tried to pull it away from my chest as much as possible. Breasts were the ultimate embarrassment as everyone could see those. Somehow I felt that sprouting breasts signaled to the world that I was grown up, that I was ready for sex.I felt like my body was cheating on me. Why was it sending these wrong signals. I was but a little girl who wanted to continue playing school with the hedges in my yard and baking mud cakes. I couldn't possibly do that with breasts. I hated them. I felt the need to act asun-grown upas I could,becauseas naive as I was I knew what that would signal for a lot of men in my community.
I didn't want to catch the attention of men. I remember earlier while I was in primary school, one much older boy asked that I'hurry an' grow up'as he was waiting on me.That statement filled me with dread for many years. I would pray silent prayers that he would not be sitting at his gate whenever I walked by. And so I dreaded these breasts sending signals that I was growing up. I hated the thought of becoming a 'young woman' even more when at about 12 years old another man declared that'if mi cyaan get yu, no odda man nah get yu'.I was sure he was going to kill me.For a long time I dared not tell anyone this but I was filled with fear- but sure death was a better alternative to people thinking I had done something to attract his attention. Maybe I didn't pull my shirt away from my chest enough. Or maybe it was my body type. I never fully enjoyed the thrills of having the narrow hips and boy like figure most other little girls did. I was what many older women in the community called 'cut out'- I am sure there is a biological term and explanation for it, but essential I was always afraid that men would make advances because I looked 'force ripe'. I blamed myself and needless to say I hated my body. What did you say about my body being a temple- it was my enemy.
It was the same body that caused that guy to peer through the window at me that morning I readied for school and the same body that caused that lanky man to chase me down the street as I headed to the bus stop one morning. It was 'the body' that had caused me to endure such violations as a young girl growing up in rural Jamaica. It was not spoken of so I never sensed that there were other young girls who were in a similar predicament. I also thought it wasn't worth speaking of because maybe it was just me- maybe I was overthinking everything. Truth is at that age I did not know how to process it and everything from menstrual cramps, to breasts to unwanted male attention made me afraid to be seen and heard. I realized I wasn't alone after a man ejaculated on a classmate as she stood in a bus on her way to school. Jamaica is said to have one of the earliest ages of initiation into sex for girls and most first encounters are said to be forced.
Rates of teenage pregnancy have fluctuated over the years but are again on the rise. Many of these young girls are impregnated by older men who didn't allow them a chance to negotiate the act and further bound by a state which doesn't allow you a choice.
I was later to learn that my experiences were worth talking about and there were spaces were sexual health and reproductive rights, 'body shaming' and harassment were being spoken of. These issues are threats to girls' liberty and violations of human rights. Remembering some of these encounters still fill me with dread. I hate bathroom windows. I know now though that I was not alone- that a lot of girls suffer quietly because their bodies belie the little girls that they are. I know too that many have suffered deeper more unshakable scars because men have justified their actions by stating that they were seduced by swaying hips or sprouting breasts; that she invited it because'she a gwaan like big 'oman'.I know that my calling to work with girls and women stems from this lived understanding of some of what we face by virtue of being female.
I wish harassment of young girls would be seen for what is is and not dismissed as a harmless cultural practice or meaningless teasing- it leaves deep emotional and psychological scars. I wish girls would stop being vilified for having breasts and thighs and a derriere. I wish parents would recognize that their girls are afraid and choose to be their advocates. I wish I could tell all girls it will be okay- that our bodies will change and that it's normal and that breasts don't make them witches. I wish our men would stop blaming girls for growing up and would stop preying on our little girls. Until all my wishes come true I will continue to #speaktogirls and #speakforgirls. What's your story #growingupagirl? AC