Address – World Population Day 2016

Her Excellency Mrs Reema Carmona
Address On The Occasion Of World Population Day 2016
Under The Theme
“INVESTING IN TEENAGE GIRLS”
At the Little Carib Theatre, Port of Spain – July 11, 2016

This year’s theme, “Investing in Teenage Girls” belies grave concern that our teenage girls run the risk of not fulfilling their god given talents, aspirations and ambitions, in the Caribbean and worldwide.  I feel, like everyone, a sense of institutional urgency in the motif adopted by the United Nations Population Fund this year.  In 1989, when the United Nations Development Fund (UNDF) decided to observe World Population Day, it was in response to the world having reached a population of 5 million, and there was a pressing need to address and rectify the associated issues of food, water and shelter shortages, poverty and growing unemployment rates.

Fast forward some 25 years later, and this world has become very a complicated place- ravaged by mass migration issues, racial and religious wars, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, severe climate and environmental changes and of course, the number of forcibly displaced people has risen to a record number of 60 million at the end of 2014.  That is why last year’s theme for World Population Day, “Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies“, highlighting the special needs of women and adolescent girls during conflicts and humanitarian disasters, serves as a powerful reminder and inspiration, to address the challenges of empowerment and equality for women, in particular, teenage girls, as we seek to discuss and address the crisis that is adolescent pregnancy.  When you add population related issues including the aforementioned, and package those with ongoing risks of abuse, sexual exploitation, violence to young women and forced and child marriages, the issue of adolescent pregnancy, translates to nothing short of a “crisis”.  This crisis will continue to threaten the future and well-being of our girls, unless WE- yes, all of us– the UNFPA, the authorities, NGO’s, business and civil society groups, the parents, teachers, schools, the community- do something about it.

One of the central objectives of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to which the international community has committed by virtue of the Sustainable Development Agenda, is to leave no one behind.  In delivering his message for World Population Day 2016, Secretary – General Ban Ki-moon succinctly stated the social dilemma to be found in many developing countries:
“Just when girls should be in school and imagining the possibilities ahead, too many are held back from pursuing their ambitions by social and cultural traps…In developing countries one in three girls is married before she reaches 18.”

Adolescent pregnancy continues to be a bar to the aspirations and self-realisation of teenage girls.  The Caribbean and Latin America, (the GRULAC Region) is reported to have the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy globally.  According to the Regional Integrated Framework to reduce Adolescent Pregnancy in the Caribbean (2014-2017), which was adopted by CARICOM in 2015, addressing and reducing adolescent pregnancy will contribute towards the following:

  1. The fulfilment of the reproductive and sexual rights of adolescents;
  2. Improvement of maternal and child health;
  3. Increase the number of girls completing their education;
  4. Promote greater gender equality;
  5. Reduce the incidence of sexual violence among teenage girls; and
  6. Increase economic productivity, human capital and employment.

 

In short, it will trigger genuine growth and returns on our investments in our teenage girls, once we give them a safe and equal space.  To echo the words of Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNFPA, in his 2016 Message for World Population Day:

“Governments everywhere need to invest in teenage girls in ways that empower them to make important life decisions and equip them to one day earn a living, engage in the affairs of their communities and be on equal footing with their male counterparts.”

I think everyone gathered here today can agree that equity, equality and respect for human and women’s rights are the standards to which every initiative geared towards women empowerment, including addressing issues of adolescent pregnancy, must aspire towards, achieve and adhere.

In the Caribbean, poverty, lack of opportunity and education account for part of the main reasons behind this scourge of pregnancy among our teenage girls. Indeed, while it is not always the case, the teenage girl who grows up with money and opportunity, will likely go on to university and onto the job market, while the girl who has grown up in nothing but poverty, hunger, deprivation and an unsafe environment, is more likely at risk of pregnancy than her middle to upper class counterpart.  These are just the stark realities in our society.  Wealth though, does not prevent the emergence of an adolescent mother.  We must not however, generalize this social issue of adolescent pregnancy on the basis of class and economics.

A 2013 regional study conducted by the University of the West Indies, Health Economics Unit, noted that some of the socio-cultural drivers of adolescent pregnancy in the Caribbean include early sexual initiation, misplaced notions of masculinity and femininity, sexual abuse and religious and child marriages.  According to the study, health system-related drivers such as limited access to health services by adolescents and the limited use of contraception methods are also major contributing causes of teenage pregnancy in our region.

Investing in teenage girls must, by its very nature, have a world and regional perspective and outreach.  That outreach is sometimes curtailed by inadequate funding triggered by a particular economic philosophy invoked by donor and lending agencies.  We want aid, we don’t want charity.  CARICOM countries are very earnest in their attempts at creating the financial sustainability to meet social targets and social concerns, as they relate to our young women.  Some of these are human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.  There are always competing social and political priorities, and as a result, the CARICOM region with its small economies and their inherent vulnerabilities, being Small Island Developing States (SIDS), often require international concessional funding to cope with these challenges.  As an economist, I am concerned about the burdensome and sometimes detrimental classification given to Small Island Developing States based essentially on GDP.  This litmus test is simply not progressive and must not be the requisite for developmental and concessionary funding and aid by international lending agencies.  We therefore seek the intervention of those international financial institutions responsible, to reconsider what has been aptly described by a Caribbean diplomat as that “insidious classification.”

In June 2015, I was invited by the First Lady of Belize, Her Excellency Madame Kim Simplis Barrow, to be part of a Caribbean “Call to Action”, which she is gallantly leading, in collaboration with the First Ladies of the Caribbean and the Special Envoy for Women & Children and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), on this very matter of adolescent pregnancy.

At that conference, I had spoken of, among other factors, the impact on our young people of social media and this fairly recent trend of reality television where promiscuous sexual practices and irresponsible behaviour are widely promoted, condoned and endorsed.  These are the types of non-traditional factors that permeate our Caribbean and Latin American culture and can negatively impact life decisions that our adolescents make.  In this age of internet and camera phones, reality shows are but only one of the many breeding grounds for unhealthy sexual practices and pitfalls among our adolescents.

Yes, we live in a world of smart phones, iPads and endless “smart” technology, but if as parents, we are not ourselves smart about monitoring and restricting our children’s use of social media, our children will outsmart us.  We will be left to clean up the mess of premature and irresponsible sexual practices among our young people.

We no longer can simply hope for the best, leaving it up to the teachers in the schools or the church.  Parents must be vigilant to ensure that their teenage girls do not fall prey to the roaming predators that exist in cyber space.  The battle is sometimes not one steeped in poverty but rather, it has become a battle of the minds and for the minds, of our teenagers.  Any worthwhile investment, in teenage girls, must reference and address the pitfalls that await them.

Apart from the parents, the schools and teachers have a significant role to play in monitoring teenage behaviour and promoting healthy lifestyles and practices among our Nation’s children.  The teacher, as sage, can influence in a defining way the road the teenage girl walks on.

In our quest to source solutions to indiscipline among our young women, we often resile to a suggestion of the need for national service and the creation of new organisational structures in support of same.  Why are we always trying to reinvent the wheel when there are solutions staring us in our faces?  The simple fact is that we do not put in the necessary resources to support time-tested organisations that actualise national service.  I am referring to organisations like the Girl Guides, Girl Guides the Red Cross, Salvation Army, the Coterie of Workers  and St Vincent De Paul to name a few.

These organisations can develop in our young girls, a greater sense of spirituality and self-esteem that will result in their becoming leaders within their homes, communities and society at large.  Girls are taught to speak out on wrongs and are given a voice to become advocates on behalf of others.  These organisations teach them independence and standing up for what is just and right.  It imbues them with a sense of humanity and the benefits of a public and social service that is not based on reciprocity.  These organisations teach them compassion, kindness, respect and provide a value system that will be their armour protecting them from life’s challenges.  We must therefore encourage young girls to join these organisations if we are serious about investing in them.  Such organisations have always produced great inspirational women in our society.

In passing, there is the matter of caring for the children of teenage mothers and the mothers themselves.  This continues to pose a challenge for our authorities and we must fix it.  Our investment in the teenage girl must continue, even though that runner stumbles or falls.  There is a need for critical support systems to ensure that that the teenage mother and child fulfil their aspirations and ambitions like any other.  We need community social work programmes, devised in such a way to identify at-risk children from as early as birth so as to prevent all forms of violence and sexual abuse.

A critical stakeholder in this quest for providing support to teenage empowerment, is the corporate world.  Corporate T&T, why not employ at-risk and vulnerable teens, during school vacations at your companies, allowing them to augment their capacities, develop their skills, broaden their knowledge, building their sense of self-worth? Allow them to grow and see a different side of life, much different to what they know, and are accustomed to, at your premier business enterprises.

Adolescent pregnancy continues to occur in alarming numbers, in part, due to what I would refer to as the “step-father syndrome” where step-daughters are victims of sexual abuse and violence in the home.  This is quite prevalent in rural communities throughout the Caribbean, in part because access to social services and NGOs do not effectively reach those areas where they are needed most.  While indeed some of these step-father perpetrators are prosecuted before the criminal courts, and are convicted, many more go unpunished because the acts are not reported.  Detection initiatives, especially in rural communities, must be robust and vigilant by encouraging social surveillance in those communities.

The Legislative agenda in the Parliament must reflect how serious we are about our investment in the future of young people, especially our teenage girls.  I was very happy to learn that the Children’s Authority has been further fortified by astute Legislation passed in the Parliament which has been assented to by His Excellency the President.  The Act I speak of, is The Family and Children Division Act No. 6 of 2016, which vests jurisdiction for all family and children’s matters in a special division of the High Court.  This means that these types of matters will receive special and hopefully, faster attention and focus in our Court system.  This is a step in the right direction.
What is nota step in the right direction though, is the recent controversial declaration by some, that this country’s Marriage Act should not be amended, despite it allowing children as young as 12 years old to marry.  This must be viewed against the fact that the age of sexual consent in Trinidad and Tobago was increased to 18 years old.  According to UNICEF, 8% of girls in Trinidad and Tobago are married before the age of 18. That is 8% too many.

This matter of child marriage is inextricably linked to the prevalence of teenage pregnancy in our country and regionally. UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin said, “Leaders and communities must focus on and stand up for the human rights of the most marginalized teenage girls, particularly those who are poor, out of school, exploited, or subject to harmful traditional practices, including child marriage.  Marginalized girls are vulnerable to poor reproductive health and are more likely to become mothers while still children themselves.  They have a right to understand their own bodies and shape their own lives.”

That is exactly what EDUCATION and WOMEN EMPOWERMENT are about – the inherent right of women and young girls to understand their own bodies and to be able to shape, control and be in charge of their own lives and their own destinies.  It starts at home- this empowerment movement- and it continues through providing our youths and young girls with access to the best education, health services and an awareness that everyone, including our most vulnerable and marginalized girls, deserve the benefits of economic growth and social progress.

Ladies and gentlemen, in closing, I think it is pertinent that I refer to a portion of the speech I gave in Belize, because it appropriately articulates the crisis of teenage mother-child and adolescent pregnancy in the context of personal ambition and development.  I had referred to what Malala Yousafzai said in 2014 when she received the Nobel Peace Prize:

“…Many children especially in India and Pakistan…are deprived of their right to education because of social taboos or they have been forced into child marriage or child labour. One of my very good school friends, same age as me, who had always been a very bold and confident girl, had always dreamed of becoming a doctor. But her dream remained a dream. At the age of twelve, she was forced to get married. And then she had a son, she had a child when she herself was still herself a child-only 14. I know she could have been a very good doctor. But she couldn’t- because she was a girl.”
It should NEVER ever be the case that a person’s gender be responsible for his or her rise or demise in this life – whether that person is a girl (or indeed, a boy) in Pakistan, India, Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana or Haiti.  If a girl wants to be a doctor, lawyer, housekeeper or pilot, let it not be that she couldn’t be any of these things, simply because she was not afforded the same access to education and opportunities as her male counterpart.  We will have failed our young girls miserably, and nobody wants to fail, far less be responsible for another’s failure.

So, how do we succeed in this fight for women’s rights and equality? And how do we assist in the cause of curbing adolescent pregnancy?  We do the right thing by our women and girls and educate them, afford them equal access to education and opportunities for personal growth and empowerment.  That is how we INVEST in our teenage girls.  I daresay this is a most worthwhile investment of our time, energy and resources in our future, because ladies and gentlemen, if we are not serious about investing in our most precious resource – our children – then little else will drive us.

I commend the UNFPA and all stakeholders for recognising and doing their part in ensuring that no one left behind also means no girl left behind.  The empowerment of women and young girls is a fundamental condition precedent to any country, organisation or society achieving true progress and democracy.  When we educate a young girl and provide opportunities for her to realise her full potential, whether in school, in academics, sport or in her particular abilities, we are one less girl away from an unwanted teenage pregnancy.  It likewise means that we are one step closer to nurturing a powerful, empowered and dynamic generation of women and young girls.

I thank you.

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