The most explosive information about our society surfaced recently. In answering a question in Parliament, the Education Minister easily pulled statistics revealing that every year in our small population of 1.3 million, over 2,500 teenage girls become pregnant; the majority of these unfortunate girls drop out of school; by age 19, over 1,000 girls in this country already have four children; and 50 per cent of mothers in Trinidad and Tobago are single parents. If you want any evidence of a coming implosion, this is it.
But we learn of this alarming situation by chance. This is equally frightening. Always we have heard about this, but only now are we learning of the extent of the problem. For years officialdom knew but no public official thought it critical enough to ring alarm bells.
Prime ministers and their ministers of education, social development, culture and gender affairs; permanent secretaries of these ministries; presidents of the republic; religious leaders of this country for the past 40 years when we first started to learn of this problem; academics, analysts, commentators; they all stand condemned for having done nothing to arrest this powder keg building at the heart of our society, producing offspring who can easily become victims of dysfunctionality, criminality and general deviancy.
Nothing was done when it was manageable, and still nothing was done when it exploded into an epidemic. We know of nothing that governments, past and present, have been doing about it. Such irresponsibility of our “validating elites”! The entire adult establishment stands condemned. We are responsible for the culture that celebrates permissiveness, promiscuity and male unscrupulousness and produces inadequate parenting, declining community life, and the uncaring leadership that has been ducking this problem for decades. We have to ask ourselves, which is the greater national disaster, massive teenage pregnancies or the apathetic society that has not dealt with it?
The Minister speaks of slight student support after the pregnancy is on the way. But a massive effort in prevention is needed. This is a national emergency. Maybe the Prime Minster heard my call last Thursday on Radio i95.5FM, that as a mother, she should be particularly concerned and should take up this cause. She held a press conference to remind us about the law and penalties, though the efficacy of these have been questioned by a prominent obstetrician/gynaecologist.
But the chairperson the Child Protection Task Force thinks the Prime Minister is serious and the Government has been demonstrating commitment in this area over the last two months. If so, this is most welcome. This is a monster problem threatening the stability of our society. We need caring, commitment and creativity, qualities always in short supply at leadership levels in this country.
We must therefore also welcome the action of President Carmona in setting up a panel of experts to investigate Petrotrin’s disastrous oil spill. Things must not flare up and then fade away, as so often happens here. We must keep our focus on this epidemic of teenage pregnancy, the effects of which are already all around us in unemployable, illiterate and innumerate youth; escalating, uncontrollable crime; weakening family structure; and a society that could explode in rage any day. We wait to see the aftermath, when this issue moves from the front pages, whether the Government will indeed stay the course.
But let me advise the Prime Minister that law, policing and penalties alone will not suffice. At the core of the problem is the individual and community underdevelopment that produces poor parenting, indiscipline, low standards, absence of values, disadvantaged, vulnerable youth. It’s a self-perpetuating situation that worsens with every new generation, making the threat ever greater to the entire society.
Compounding the deprivation, the wider environment offers nothing as beacon or inspiration. It is a fundamentally soulless, materialistic society, with an education system that over-emphasises utilitarianism, religion that hardly goes beyond the routine and ritualistic, no philosophers or poets, and arts that need to provide more spiritual and intellectual nourishment for the hungry human spirit.
Man cannot live by soca and chutney alone. In the barrenness, our worst dominate, the politicians, incarnations of selfishness, greed, and abysmal shallowness. They are the ones we must listen to and read about every blessed day, the nonsense they say, the incompetence they reveal. Their unworthiness is the daily diet we must digest when they are the ones most to be blamed for the inaction on this situation of escalating teenage pregnancies and other endemic problems in Trinidad and Tobago.
I must also advise the Leader of the Opposition that this problem requires a national effort and he cannot skirt the issue. He must make his party available to be part of the solution which will require years, even decades. But in offering help, Dr Rowley will have to accept that his party, in government for over 40 years since independence, bears major responsibility for this problem.
Will he have the courage to say the PNM, in spite of its many great achievements, did little to arrest this epidemic of teenage pregnancies? If he doesn’t, will his challenger, Pennelope Beckles-Robinson, deal with this problem that is prevalent in many NM strongholds? Then we might have a battle for PNM leadership worthy of our attention, rather than this rubbish of who is blacker than whom.
No serious political party can avoid this issue. Party members and the wider population must demand that leaders speak up. As we become immersed in internal party elections, let us ensure that this issue is tackled by every aspirant to high office. It is only an awakened public consciousness, the high politics, that will save Trinidad and Tobago. The greater national tragedy is not the teenage pregnancies but the apathy of the people and the inadequacy of our leaders.
• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former government minister