Rights without Access: Plight of Adolescents in the Caribbean
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We are now 18 months into the 2030 Agenda, the universal people-centered policy agenda of development goals and targets aimed at fighting inequalities, including those related to the empowerment of women and girls. The United Nations defines sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The idea is that efforts will be mobilized locally to ensure that no one is left behind in the fight against gender inequality and the likes. History has shown that due to socio-economic and socio-cultural realities of our region, quite often those left behind in the realization of development plans are women, children and adolescents who too often bear the brunt of social injustice.
Global commitments need national action
In recognition of this disparity, the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2016-2030) was created as a sort of blueprint aimed at keeping women, children and adolescents at the heart of the sustainable development agenda. Perhaps for the first time, adolescents have joined the peripheral ranks of the traditionally vulnerable target groups that warrant intentional and strategic action necessary for global transformation and to ensure access to opportunities that foster the manifestation of human potential.
The Caribbean social discourse on sustainable development cannot ignore adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights as a socio-political conduit for harmonizing and operationalizing efforts to improve the lives of future generations. This is because the PAHO’s Situation Analysis of Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV in the Caribbean found that “at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the adolescent and youth population is the largest cohort in the history of the Caribbean region, representing 26.6% of the total population.” Adolescence is a dramatic, transitional period of life and one which is often associated with feelings of bewilderment. It is the time when our existence as sexual beings is embodied. Adolescents often claim to be misunderstood, misrepresented and mistreated. With all those challenges that seem to come with the territory of being a teenager, the inability to effectively access sexual and reproductive health services compounds their social maneuvering and often renders them as being misguided and misinformed. Additionally, this quality of life gap only serves to diminish the ability of adolescents to actively participate in educational learning settings and prepare for future careers and employment.
According to the World Health Organization, Universal Access has three dimensions: Physical Accessibility, Financial Affordability and Acceptability. For many Caribbean adults, adequate sexual and reproductive health services is neither readily obtainable nor affordable. Adolescents, on the other hand are faced with a triple whammy of inaccessibility because their limitations are aggravated by the elusive dimension of acceptability. The quandary is that in most Caribbean countries, the age of consent is not aligned with the age of access to sexual and reproductive health services. So, we give our young people the right to have sex in the eyes of the law, but then restrict their legal access to the services that they need to safely enjoy said sexual activity. What a juxtapositioning of rights and access! This disparity leads private and public health care workers to be ambivalent about taking a legal approach to provision of services versus taking a rights-based one.
We live in a region where in some countries, child marriage is still legal and abortions are not. Where free male condoms are stored in candy jars at barber shops but where minors cannot get tested for HIV without an adult being present. Where we can teach religious doctrines in government schools but can’t teach safe sex, outside of abstinence, of course. There are still so many social constructs and legal instruments that continue to perpetuate both discrimination against sexually-active adolescents and violation of their sexual and reproductive rights.
The Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health and its accompanying Operational Framework are laudable as they provide a high-level roadmap of what needs to be done to ensure that no one is left behind on the journey of attaining the highest standards of health and well-being. Thinking globally is always encouraged but as a region, we need to ensure that we are acting locally by instituting policies and plans which complement our actions, are aligned with our realities, and will advance adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Caribbean.
In the year 2030, all of today’s adolescents will be adults. Will we have provided access to health and wellness services in support of their being equipped to pursue livelihoods that combat generational poverty? Would we have exhausted our efforts, both nationally and regionally, to ensure that their children are living in a Caribbean with policies and laws that truly afford them the right to realize their rights?
Dr. Icilda Humes is an international gender and organization development consultant. She is also the Co-Founder, The Global Cottage and Former Director of Belize’s Women’s Department, Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation