Three years ago, at a workshop on women’s health, a street-smart 23-year-old from along the East West Corridor asked me, “If a man — in my mouth, I could get pregnant?”
It will shock many to know that while in popular discourse about sexuality, young people are stereotyped as sexually advanced, these youths have little neutral information on sexuality, pregnancy, contraception, HIV prevention and condom use.
They know the sex act, of course, but they have limited information on sexuality at a time in their physical development when they are walking hormones.
Where can they access formal information? Not in the schools because sex education is not part of the curriculum and according to the spanking new Minister of Education, Anthony Garcia, none is going to be provided.
This is the carte blanche, casual one-liner response to the following facts: one in four students between 13 and 15 years is sexually active; one in eight babies born in T&T has a teen mother; more than one third of 15 to 24-year-olds have wrong ideas about HIV prevention; a quarter of people living with HIV are under 24 years old; the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) supports age-appropriate sex education in primary and secondary schools and a 2013 survey by UNAIDS found that four out of five respondents support sex education in the schools’ curriculum.
Young people will not learn about sex and sexuality from the porn that many of them are watching and they will not learn it from their peers who themselves are ignorant.
Mr Garcia would have parents provide that education but where are parents learning it? They too have emerged from an education system that has not taught them, so they learned as they went along, some handing downs myths that they heard in their youth.
The consequence of this failure is that young men impregnate young women with the inevitable outcome of high rates of teenage pregnancy, male youths not equipped to contribute financially or emotionally to child care and young women having to abandon education and dreams to raise a child as best as they could.
So there will be no sex education, no contraception and, according to Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, no reform of legal provisions that threaten prosecution of doctors who perform abortions.
Those provisions, contained in the Offences of the Persons Act, date back to the 1860s and have remained unchanged despite the fact that the British colonisers who codified and bequeathed them to us have modernised their legislation more than once.
So much for the anti-colonial rhetoric at the opening of the 11th Parliament; there is much more than one rope keeping this country moored to colonialism. Guyana, Barbados, St Lucia, Monserrat, Belize and St Vincent and the Grenadines have cut more ropes and they are not even republics.
Mr Deyalsingh, like Mr Garcia, delivered a carte blanche, casual one-liner response to the following facts: 3,000 to 4,000 women enter the public health system annually suffering from complications resulting from back-street abortions; many of them are teenagers; unsafe abortions is a leading cause of death among women in Latin America and the Caribbean and the majority of women who access back-street abortions are young and poor and therefore unable to access information and services.
While I welcome the minister’s commitment to appointing a Director of Women’s Health, I wonder what that Director will do when thousands of women turn up at emergency departments each year suffering from botched-abortion complications. Assuming Mr Deyalsingh has alternative remedies and policy directions to offer these women, I would truly like to hear them and the data on which they are based.
Meanwhile, there is still no word on where child development has been placed in the current administration’s realignment of ministries.
It took 15 years after legislation was drafted to operationalise the Children’s Authority which, as I write, is overwhelmed with thousands of cases—and the Authority has been functional for a mere four months now.
The Child Protection Unit (CPU) of the police service needs approximately 180 officers; at the moment the unit is operating with less than half that number; 90 officers are handling thousands of cases. This unit too was only operationalised four months ago when the 15-year-old Children’s Authority Act was finally proclaimed.
Add to that child marriages in the Hindu, Muslim and Orisha Marriage Acts, the lack of State facilities for abandoned and neglected children, the girls who are housed in adult prisons, the horror stories from children’s homes run by religious organisations and the fact that the Children Act 2012 contains provisions for community residences except there are none so magistrates have no idea what to do when children appear before them.
How much more does the Government need to be persuaded that there is an epidemic of violence against women and children and that what is needed is dialogue rather than dictates?