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Why Access Matters: SRH and Caribbean Youth
Among all of the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) topics being discussed in the Caribbean, the age of access versus the age of consent is a debate that captures everyone’s attention, from young people to adults. With the age of consent to sexual activities in most places being 16, but the age of access to SRH services being 18, youth face a major problem when it comes to seeking services and treatment between those ages.
In fact, this age gap is a main reason for the high numbers of pregnant adolescents in the region. Although sexuality education is also a factor, young people often suffer the consequences of not being able to legally access treatment and protection. According to the UNFPA, 20,000 women under the age of 18 give birth to children across the world each day. This is indeed a large problem as it relates to youth development, however, adolescent pregnancy is not the only issue that youth face due to the legal age of access. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are also very rampant in the region, and denying access to youth who have sex increases their risk of contracting one. Among the STIs found in the region, for example, it is estimated that the number of HIV cases has dropped, but that doesn’t mean that the risk is lowered.
It seems like this should be a pretty straightforward decision, right? Wrong. Many people argue against lowering the age of access for various reasons. The biggest argument people have is if they lower the age of access to 16, more young people would keep secrets from their parents. They believe that lowering the legal age gives the adolescent too much freedom, as they would no longer need an adult to access SRH services.
These individuals also believe that the age of consent should be 18 instead. With the number of teenagers between 13 and 17 who are sexually active, I can understand that parents will have concerns about safety and other factors. However, raising the age of consent will prove to be problematic because there will be more young people having sex “illegally.”
But the core problem lies within the argument. As a parent you are going to be worried and curious about your child’s activity. What parent wouldn’t be? But in wanting to know what your child is up to (which they are more than likely not going to share for fear of being ridiculed or rejected), you are risking their health—and their very lives!
Many young people will not go to their parents when they think they have a problem and the longer they wait, the worse it will get because of lack of support. I remember a case where a 16-year-old girl contracted gonorrhea and decided to wait until she was 18 to get treatment. By then the infection had caused permanent damage to her reproductive organs, making it impossible for her to have children. If this is the case for STIs, imagine the outcome for an unplanned pregnancy or an abortion. This is exactly why it is important for the age of access to be lowered.
In Barbados, after years of campaigning by the Barbados Family Planning Association and other organizations, the government has agreed to lower the age of access. However, it has not been done yet due to other “high priority” legislation changes that the government has prioritized instead. While some progress has been made, the longer the government waits to fulfill its promise, the higher the risk is for youth who cannot access SRH services. In many other countries in the region though the age of access still remains at 18, and this needs to be changed as well. The youth of the Caribbean are of great importance to the future and need to be cared for. Our sexual health is just as important as any other aspect of our lives.