Her Excellency Mrs Reema Carmona Address at The Round Table Meeting on Adolescent Pregnancy in the Caribbean

Her Excellency Reema Carmona address at the “Call to Action: Adolescent Pregnancy in the Caribbean”, Round Table Meeting with Spouses of Heads of Government of the Caribbean, in Belize City, Belize, on June 25, 2015.

Your Excellency Madame Kim Simplis Barrow, your invitation to attend this conference to confront and address issues of adolescent pregnancy with First Ladies of the Caribbean, is a worthy and proactive initiative.  I immediately reflected on what a Trinidad and Tobago perspective could add to this “Call to Action” on this troubling concern of adolescent pregnancy in the Caribbean diaspora.

In the Caribbean, we have more in common than just our rich cultures, history, music and ambience.  We share similar social and societal problems as a Caribbean people, sometimes dark clouds- but the silver lining here is that shared problems can translate into shared solutions which when assessed collectively, rather than individually, will redound to the shared benefit and interests of ALL our people.  I am therefore honoured to be a part of this burgeoning revolution of sharing and caring for our adolescent girls (and boys) that you, Excellency, are leading, in collaboration with the Special Envoy for Women & Children and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).  If ever our young women (and men) needed a ‘Call to Action’ on specific human issues affecting them, it is on this very challenging matter of adolescent pregnancy which we must act on urgently.

Juvenile delinquency and adolescent pregnancy have a peculiar dynamic.  They begin inter alia with the search for unrequited love arising from a domestic environment that is neither holistic nor altruistic.  I therefore wish to commend our host for having the vision and strength to pursue this problem of adolescent pregnancy beyond the State of Belize. Adolescent pregnancy has resulted in multifaceted social ills, among them bad parenting, because sometimes there are simply no support systems in place.  As a result, we must therefore take care of those who have fallen through the cracks in the same way as those who are about to. Social programmes must be put in place to assist adolescent mothers with a firm agenda of personal empowerment through remedial education, jobs and fresh opportunity. Often without those options, multiple births are the order of the day for the adolescent mother during her teenage years.

Is it not obvious that an adolescent mother, raising her child in the same cycle of social deprivation, poverty, lack of education, guidance and love in which she was raised, will likely, though unintentionally, create the environment for its continuance?  So this same adolescent girl, raised in a home where her own mother is less than twice her age, deprived of love and other resources because that mother too, did not complete her education, this adolescent girl gets pregnant and her child is then raised in the same cycle and relay race of wounded love, deprivation and abuse as she suffered and her mother before her.  The teenage mother of today is often the child of a teenage mother of yesterday.  It was revealed in our Parliament by a Minister last year, that by age 19, more than 1000 young women would have already had 4 pregnancies.

Globally, teenage pregnancy occurs more commonly where poverty and illiteracy exist.  Wealth also does not prevent the emergence of an adolescent mother.  We must not run the risk of generalizing this social issue of adolescent pregnancy on the basis of class and economics.  Adolescent pregnancy can idiosyncratically arise from poverty, lack of love and education, peer pressure, low self-esteem and frighteningly on the rise, incestuous relations.

On an analogous note, there are as well many young men, adolescents, who are inextricably linked to the equation of adolescent pregnancy.  The adolescent male involved in these pregnancies also suffers equally from teenage parenthood.  The fact is, these are children with children and teenage parenthood can be an overwhelming responsibility.  Any discussion on reducing adolescent pregnancy must therefore necessarily involve the equal empowerment, guidance and education of the adolescent male, who falls victim to reckless sexual practices that can lead not only to adolescent pregnancy but in some cases, even HIV infection.

A hugely impacting dispenser of misguidance and personal chaos, yes indeed, chaos- among our young men and women is social media and this fairly recent trend of reality television where promiscuous sexual practices and irresponsible behaviour are widely promoted, condoned and endorsed. In this age of internet and camera phones, reality shows are but only one of the many breeding grounds for unhealthy sexual practices among our adolescents.  Recently in Trinidad and Tobago, the filming of adolescents engaged in sexual activity in the classrooms has become “fashionable” for young people.  Embarrassingly, not only are the acts filmed, but the video is then shared and transmitted via the cell phones. The negatives are often lost on a child’s psyche.

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 in common law relationships.  This social aberration 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.  Detection initiatives especially in rural communities must be robust and vigilant by encouraging social surveillance in those said communities.  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.  The age-old taboo attached to victims of rape and adolescent pregnancy generally is still very much intact today. Imagine then, the stigma and shame society often fixes upon the poor young victim of sexual molestation by her step-father.  What is even worse, is that the child/teenage victim feels cornered by the mother, who generally is financially dependent on the step-father and prefers to turn a blind eye to his abuse of her own daughter.  The singular message to the violated must be, ‘you are a victim and not a perpetrator.’

In the struggle to arrest sexual abuse and adolescent pregnancy, the first real and recognisable line of defence are teachers in the primary and secondary schools.  They are generally the first to detect and report that something is wrong with the young female student.  Therefore as part of their training modules, there should be a component that hones the skills of a teacher to identify social misfeasance and sexual abuse as it relates to their students.  Teachers in schools so trained will be able to detect victims of sexual abuse who may be characterised wrongly by many as the ‘too reserved child’ or the ‘hyperactive child’ or the ‘bully in the classroom’ or ‘the absentee student’ or ‘the drop-out’, when they are really victims crying for help.

Legislation and policies to punish or deter this type of behaviour can only do so much.  What is critical is to attack this problem of adolescent pregnancy from the root up and that attack requires social intervention and change from our governments, community leaders, teachers, mothers and fathers, from the youths themselves and from the rest of civil and corporate society.  We need to target all of society including the poverty-stricken communities, educate entire families and of course, young people on the benefits of abstinence and as well, proper contraceptive practices, inject full-time guidance counsellors into our schools and create easy access to and constant visibility of social workers in our system.  Look forward to being an active member and partner of the network so that we all can continue to share, activate and implement among other strategies, the Integrated Strategic Framework for the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancy which must have implementable timelines that are practical and realistic.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we are engaged in certain initiatives. In the school system, the teaching of Health and Family Life Education, formerly referred to as Sex Education, is now a part of the school’s curriculum.  Many schools have social workers and if required, there is access to behavioural and clinical psychologists. However, the matter of caring for the children of teenage mothers continues to pose a challenge for our authorities.  We recognise that the establishment of free call-in centres for information and advice ought to be a priority. In passing, I wish to suggest that community social work programmes be devised with the aim of identifying at-risk children from as early as birth so as to prevent all forms of violence and sexual abuse especially in poor and marginalised children.

In closing, I wish to share with you a portion of the speech of then 17 year old Malala Yousafzai, on receiving the Nobel Prize, which encapsulates what I will call the crisis of the mother-child and adolescent pregnancy in the context of personal ambition and development. Malala said:

“…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.”

My fellow First Ladies of the Caribbean, ladies and gentlemen, that we do not have religious and social norms, even laws, that dictate child marriages and deprive girls of access to education is HALF THE BATTLE ALREADY WON. In fact, our laws mandate against statutory rape and underage marriages. We need only to understand the gender horrors and discrimination that take place outside of the Caribbean to appreciate how very blessed and fortunate we are, in the Caribbean, as women, as girls, as mothers, as activists for change. The good news is that our work in reducing adolescent pregnancy begins at 50% complete. There is no bad news. Just a lot of work to be done to accomplish what must now become not only national and regional goals- but personal goals extending beyond our offices- to be the change we want to see in our Caribbean world- to reduce adolescent pregnancy and to empower our young people. This is a most worthwhile investment of time, energy, resources, heart and soul for the sake of tomorrow’s leaders.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.