The big challenge—teen pregnancy

By Rickey Singh

 THE INTER-AMERICAN Development Bank reminded us this past week in its latest report what is widely known and has been experienced by citizens across the Caribbean/Latin America region—namely that 2013 was not a good year for economic performance. 

And additionally, that the forecast for 2014 is an estimated less than three per cent growth in gross domestic product (GDP). 

But it is the assessment of a serious human rights threat facing teenage girls of our Caribbean Community, as identified by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Caricom, that’s the primary focus of today’s column. 

 With an estimated one third of Caribbean teenage girls getting married before their 18th birthday, among them those compelled to do so by unexpected/unplanned pregnancies, this problem engaged the attention of Caricom’s Council for Human and Social Development last year. 

The result was the commissioning of “a strategic framework on adolescent pregnancy” that provided a most useful report to inspire initiatives for action at a consultation jointly organised by the Caricom Secretariat and the UN agency in Port of Spain early last month and involving participation by representatives from the region’s private sector and non-government organisations (NGOs). 

Caricom’s Assistant Secretary General, Dr Douglas Slater, has noted in an overview of the challenge to be confronted, that “adolescent pregnancy and births should not be seen merely as a reproductive health issue….

“There are,” he contends  “substantial  economic, social and human costs attached to them and tackling this issue should be a priority in every member state of the Community.”

The promise arising from that consultancy—a Caricom, UNFPA and T&T Government partnership initiative in 2013—was the development of a “new holistic approach to minimise the occurrence of adolescent pregnancy  that draws on the experience and strengths of all  stakeholders” in the region. 

According to the UNFPA “State of the World Population Report” for 2013, motherhood in childhood is a huge global problem, especially in developing countries where, every year, some 7.3 million girls under the age of 18 give birth.

Within Caricom, despite an overall fall in total fertility rates, adolescent birth rates remain relatively high. As pointed out by the Caricom Secretariat, among girls aged 15-19 years old, the birth rate ranges from 26 to 97 per one thousand adolescents. 

Guyana, Belize, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda and Suriname are reported to have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the region.

As governments and agencies like UNFPA ponder initiatives to address the social and economic consequences of teenage pregnancy, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has raised a related issue that’s a problem for more than Trinidad and Tobago:

She has identified as a challenge requiring urgent attention, the need for mandatory schooling up to 16 years of age for both males and females instead of the current school leaving option at age 12.

Last month, on her return from attending the funeral in South Africa of Nelson Mandela, the Prime Minister disclosed her intention to introduce legislation early in 2014 to make it mandatory for school enrolment to begin at five and end at 16. 

It is currently from six to 12 years and the Prime Minister’s intention is to ensure “equality in education” with girls in mind. Females, for varying reasons, often leave school too early. Mrs Persad-Bissesar, of course, would be aware that this is a cultural problem for plural societies like Guyana as well.

Meanwhile, across in Jamaica, information minister Sandra Falconer has a different concern involving the spreading regional problem of teenage pregnancy.

She wants priority attention to be given to amending the law to end the current contradiction of having 18 years as the “adult age” while both boys and girls are legally able to consent to sex at 16.

So when she addressed the Caricom/UNFPA consultation last month, Falconer took the opportunity to focus on the necessity for ending this contradictory situation as part of Jamaica’s own efforts to deal with the problem of teenage pregnancy.

Sex, she argues, should be “an adult thing” and the “adult age” in Jamaica is 18 (as recognised in some other Caricom states). Therefore, it’s time to put an end to encouraging youngsters, by existing law, to have consensual sex at the age of 16.

We, therefore, await the initiatives to flow from that Caricom/UNFPA consultation last month in Port of Spain as the negative consequences of rising teenage pregnancy are simply too challenging for any member of our regional community to ignore.

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