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Protecting the people of Jamaica

On being sworn in as Jamaica’s President last month, Portia Simpson-Miller pledged to ease poverty, boost the economy, reduce joblessness and create a country of “brothers and sisters, not of rivals and victims”.

This last comment was a reference to the rise in violence which has recently threatened the country’s development. Jamaica now has one of the highest rates of gun crime in the world.

To show the new President means business, a new crackdown on firearms has already begun. Over 2,000 illegal weapons have been melted down in the capital Kingston, watched by government and United Nations officials. This action is part of a new programme to tackle gun trafficking and violent crimes.

During her election campaign, Ms Simpson Miller also declared that “no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation”. This statement was seen as a sign she may lend her weight behind a current campaign to scrap the nineteenth-century British-made law which criminalises homosexuality in Jamaica. The law is blamed for contributing to widespread homophobic views and frequent attacks on gay people.

The fear created by frequent homophobic violence is believed to be contributing to spread of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. The country already has a high incidence rate of the disease, with 1.6% of the population infected. (The Caribbean region has the second highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS after sub-Saharan Africa.) Often fearing to seek medical help, around a third of gay men in Jamaica are now believed to be infected with the disease.

HIV/AIDS is also a key problem for the young people of the Caribbean, where a third of new cases diagnosed are in people aged 25-34. Given a typical eight-year incubation period for the disease, these infections are actually occurring among 15-24 year-olds. In this age group, females are much more likely to be infected in Jamaica, making up 3 cases to every 1 male. Contributory factors include the young age at which many girls become sexually active and the fact that around half of adolescents surveyed in the Caribbean reported their first sexual experience was non-consensual.

The new President faces many daunting issues to improve the life of her citizens, whose average income is under 5,000 dollars annually. Overcoming Jamaica’s huge national debt will be a particularly hard problem, as will tackling high unemployment, particularly among the young. But given that Mrs Simspon-Millar was herself born in a Kingston ghetto and escaped the poverty of her youth, many Jamaicans are placing their hope in her leadership, that through her policies she can also give them a chance to escape poverty and violence.

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