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Making Space for Youth in Trinidad and Tobago
Last week, I was in New York at the 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Joined by other advocates and representatives from the world’s governments, I advocated for gender equality and the full realization of women’s human rights and women’s empowerment, universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services, information and education.
Increasingly, it seems that young people face formidable barriers to their health, happiness, and well being. In Trinidad and Tobago, a number of young people become sexually active by age 14, often with little information and almost always without access to condoms and quality, non-judgmental health services.
According to the Trinidad and Tobago report of the Global School-Based Student Health Survey, students are engaging in sexual activity at about puberty when their bodies are still immature. Male students were found to be more sexually active than the female students—32% reported they'd had sexual intercourse and 20% had sexual intercourse for the first time before the age of 13. Additionally, one in four young men had multiple sex partners and one in three had sexual intercourse during the past 12 months.
Many times, girls endure the highest consequences through unintended pregnancies and disproportionately high rates of HIV infection. Unfortunately, these figures have not been widely translated into programs and policies that meet the real-life needs of Trinidad and Tobago’s youth.
Young people are often unable to access sexual and reproductive health services, due to stigma from health care providers. Other times, laws prevent young people from getting the care they need. Most countries in the Caribbean have laws that prevent young people under 16 from accessing contraception, despite the fact that many adolescent pregnancies occur before this age.
To bridge this gap, my organization— the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago—went to young people to help find a solution. What emerged is De Living Room, the first center in the country that provides information, education, counselling, and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.
De Living Room was named by young people in reference to the liveliest rooms found in homes across Trinidad and Tobago. Traditionally the hub of family activity, living rooms are places where family members relax, bond, and share stories. They are warm places where knowledge is passed from one generation to another. This is what De Living Room is about: learning, comfort, and a non-clinical setting that is staffed by competent, patient, and kind health care providers.
At De Living Room, young people between 14 and 25 years old—particularly young people who are out of school or living in difficult circumstances—receive counselling, health services, and a safe place to talk openly among their peers about issues that affect them. A critical component of our offerings is comprehensive sexuality education, which FPATT has provided for more than four decades. Our educational programs not only give young people accurate information about their bodies, but also help prepare them for the challenges of puberty and, eventually, adulthood.
Young people learn how to build consensual, healthy relationships and exercise responsible behaviour. They prepare for the world of work by learning how to negotiate, listen, and exercise responsible behaviors—issues that many adolescents struggle with. They gain self-esteem and the confidence to make their own way in the world. In a country where teen pregnancy has not decreased for the past fourteen years, De Living Room gives young people the tools they need to determine their own futures.
Today, the demand remains high. Over the last five years young people have requested over 53,000 services from the center. However, the lack of funding for programs like De Living Room— and their promotion—jeopardizes their continued success. With the world poised to set the next global development agenda, I urge governments to prioritize the needs of young people, specifically their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
All young people deserve the opportunity to determine their own futures, care for their bodies and their health, and foster relationships built on trust and consent. And governments have a responsibility to ensure that all young people have access to the information and services they want, need, and deserve.