Evelyn Rockett is hoping for a perfect school year.
“This far, for this year,” Ms. Rockett said, dramatically knocking on the wooden desk where she was sitting, “no pregnancies in our schools. No new cases. That’s a record. This is history and I’m ecstatic.”
Ms. Rockett is manager of Pregnancy and Parenting Services for the Department of Education. For the past five years, she has been working to keep pregnant teens in school and trying to educate other students so that they do not become pregnant, or create a pregnancy.
Whether or not she achieves her goal for this school year, figures show that the teen pregnancy rate in the Cayman Islands has been declining. Between 2012 and 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the rate of live births to teenage mothers, as a percentage of all live births, dropped nearly in half, from 6.2 percent to 3.5 percent, according to figures from the Cayman Islands Health Services Authority.
The 44 percent drop brings the teen pregnancy rate to its lowest level in at least 22 years. The rate in 1995 was 11.3 percent. It has only been in double digits once since then, when it hit 10.6 percent in 1998.
Not everyone is convinced by the data. There is a perception by many that the teen pregnancy rate is actually rising. Michael Myles, formerly the government’s officer for at-risk youth and now a leader of the nonprofit Youth Anti-Crime Trust, said the data does not fit with his experience.
Among health issues relating to young women, Mr. Myles said, “Teen pregnancy has been the leading one for years.”
Ms. Rockett may not be seeing the entire picture, Mr. Myles said, since he believes many teens who get pregnant drop out of school. He also believes some who become pregnant may not come to term.
“I guarantee you that abortion rates are up,” he said, although there is no real evidence to indicate that.
Mr. Myers pointed to a 2013 adolescent health and sexuality survey conducted by the Pan American Health Organization. The survey reported that one in 12 teens who got pregnant said they had had an abortion. The procedure is illegal in the Cayman Islands, and the Ministry of Health and Culture does not keep statistics either on illegally obtained abortions or estimates of those that might be done abroad.
The 2013 survey only provides data for a single point in time and does not show any trends in numbers. A subsequent survey has not been conducted. The data provided by the Health Services Authority is collected annually.
Ms. Rockett said with the outreach her office does, she is certain no more than a handful of pregnant teens fail to come to her attention. She also said she has seen no indication that the number of teens seeking abortions has risen.
“I haven’t heard of any girls who have gotten pregnant and decided [to have an abortion],” she said. “There’s no evidence of that.”
Although the data indicate a drop in instances of teen pregnancy, the rate for the Cayman Islands is still relatively high. The World Health Organization says the United States and Great Britain have the highest rates of teen births. In the United States, teen births accounted for 5.8 percent of all live births in 2015, the most recent year available. In England and Wales, the 2015 rate was 4.6 percent. Cayman’s rate in 2015 was 5.3 percent. Abortion is also legal in both the United States and the United Kingdom. More than half of pregnancies in girls 16 and under in England and Wales are terminated by abortion.
Experts say many factors are at play in the local decline in teen pregnancy, but Ms. Rockett believes her program is partly responsible for the downward trend. She has been an educator in public schools for 34 years, she said. When she took over the pregnancy program, she was tasked with making sure teen mothers completed their education. It soon became clear to her that she needed to be more proactive.
“A prevention module had to be part of the program,” Ms. Rockett said. “Hence, the reason for me coming up with the idea that I should start doing assemblies.”
She initially brought her presentation, “The Math of Sex,” to the students at the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre, where her program office is located, then to John Gray High School. She is hoping to add Clifton Hunter High School to her schedule this year. Her experience, she said, shows the information is badly needed.
“A lot of young people grow up totally confused,” Ms. Rockett said. “There is so much [peer] pressure.”
A lot of that pressure is centered on sex.
“We’re not encouraging them to be sexually active,” she said. “But if they are, there are steps they need to take. We start to open up avenues for them to make good decisions.”
Briana Kerr, 16, said she was naive when she got pregnant nearly two years ago.
“I didn’t realize the risk,” said Ms. Kerr, who is a student in Ms. Rockett’s program. “They should have more (sex) education for girls and boys.”
Ms. Kerr left the Cayman Islands after completing Year 9 at John Gray High School. She went to live with an aunt in Fort Lauderdale and planned to finish high school there. When she got pregnant with her daughter, Tiana, during her first year there, she returned home to live with her mother.
She too thought the rate of teen pregnancies was on the rise in Cayman.
“I’m quite surprised it’s going down,” she said.
Laura Elniski, who directs the sexually transmitted infection program for the health authority, said she thinks better education is helping to lower the rate. She provides a six- to eight-week course in STI and AIDS prevention and conducts health fairs at both public and private schools on a regular basis. She also oversees an STI testing program run out of the Red Cross office. Interest in that program has increased since its introduction in 2015 – from 41 people getting tested the first year to 106 in 2017 – part of an increased awareness of sexual health that Ms. Elniski has observed. She suspects it has impacted teen pregnancy rates as well.
“When we do Q&A at the beginning [of a presentation], the level of what they are aware of is higher,” Ms. Elniski said of the teens she deals with.
Department of Education Services Director Lyneth Monteith said education programs such as those run by Ms. Elniski and Ms. Rockett are important. But she thinks another reason fewer girls might be getting pregnant is because of peer support programs that have been implemented in the last two years in all the public schools.
“It’s about building positive relations, generally,” Ms. Monteith said, adding teens “may be more comfortable speaking with their peers. It’s all about mentoring and support. And with that comes a comfort, ‘I can go to this person when I have a problem.’”
In turn, that person can help steer their peer to the appropriate authority, she said.
Whatever the reasons may be, those who deal with teens say they are encouraged by the downward trend in pregnancy rates. Ms. Rockett is pushing students to do even better. She challenges the groups she meets with to keep the so-far-perfect record going for this school year.
“Let’s say we were the year to break that cycle,” she said she tells them. “I’m hoping they will take that challenge to heart.”