48th Annual General Meeting of FAMPLAN Jamaica
Adults just see us as problems to be controlled, not as thinking people to be respected. If that could change, so much would change.
Those were the words of a young man in Guyana a couple of months ago as I went through the exercise of identifying what were some of the key challenges faced by him and his peers. His words continue to resonate with me, because he did go on to identify his vision of what that would mean.
At home, at school, in churches young people’s opinions would be sought out regarding what would work best for them in shaping decisions that affect them. With their voices heard and acted on, the perspective and portrayal of youth would over time gently shift to include not just resistance, rudeness, defiance, irresponsibility, drug addiction, but also increasingly a recognition of them as gifted, perceptive, futuristic, savvy, participatory, and bringing fresh perspectives and the language we use in referring to our youth would follow that pattern.
That, of course, needs to be balanced with the value of providing guidance and sharing the wisdom of experience. But have you noticed that while we struggle to work out how to turn on our newfangled flat screen TVs, the 10-year-old will walk into the room, turn it on, and without a second thought, move on to download a dozen new apps on our cellphones? Kids are now coming into this world with technologically attuned brains. If we fail to make use of this wealth of talent that resides in our homes and our societies, we do a disservice not only to our youth, but also to ourselves and to the optimum development of our societies.
One of the solutions from the young man from Guyana was that we aim for societies where youth parliaments would be formed not just as a passing exercise as currently obtains, but as the norm--an institution where, just as obtains in the adult parliaments, youth would debate national issues and reach consensus that would then be presented to the national parliament for ratification. In this way, with greater recognition and respect for youth normalized across our institutions, we would begin to kindle within our youth the kind of ownership of their lives and their futures that could naturally give rise to better prepared future leaders and participants in national development at all levels.
I stress this point because we are arriving at a place in our global development that will require our maximum combined talent. We may no longer be able to afford the luxury of squandering the talent of our youth. Today’s world is moving at breakneck speed spawning technologies, possibilities, developments, synergies, and demands that require completely new paradigms in order for us to keep up and shape appropriate responses.
Whereas millennia ago, a phenomenal invention emerged and was celebrated about every decade, today we can hardly keep pace with the daily outpourings of lifechanging discoveries. This requires individuals and organizations at all levels that are dynamic in response, proactive, highly skilled, flexible, creative ,and capable of staying ahead of the game by taking constant readings of the pulse of society. It requires too the fresh perspectives and talents that our youth can bring.
In order to remain competitive, or at the very least maintain a respectable level of autonomy, every organization and every country needs to develop a sufficient human capacity to cope with and respond to the changing dynamics, the shifting and mounting demands of its complex and growing populations. This requires a mass of people in society who are not just technologically competent and highly skilled in their fields, but who are also psychologically equal to the task. This psychological readiness aspect has as many real implications for the work of IPPF/WHR and its members as ensuring individual well being, the healthy expression of one’s sexuality, and creating social change.
Let’s take a moment to look at this aspect of development. The healthy expression of one’s sexuality is not just a fundamental human right, but also a natural and precious aspect of one’s well being. By taking on the responsibility of ensuring rights in relation to sex and sexuality, IPPF/WHR and its members have taken on what might be one of the most controversial and divisive issues on the planet. Understanding the core importance of these issues to human development, we hold our ground, sometimes against very strong opposition, because these are issues that do not easily lend themselves to general consensus.
Sex is the life-giving impetus at the core of our physical existence. In its pleasure aspect, sex can provide a most gratifying expression of that human desire for connection. One would imagine, therefore, that the sexual experience so essential to human existence and one’s sexuality--that unique expression of one’s individuality-- would be something to be treasured.
Instead, what we so often find is that sex and sexuality are imbued with a myriad of contradictions. Many cultures are closed to supporting youth in understanding and managing their sexuality in an informed manner. Rather, they try without success to make youth sexuality invisible. Inequality continues to define male-female relationships. Sexual partnerships are gendered within traditional heterosexual parameters, sometimes with legal or violent repercussions for the transgressor.
Young girls are still denied the right to continued education because of early unplanned pregnancies, and women’s lives daily come to an abrupt end because of unsafe abortions. In some instances right here in the Caribbean, young girls are forced to marry their rapists in exchange for a sum of money to the family to keep the matter quiet. Children have fathers who are also their grandfathers, as incest is swept under the carpet. Laws are in effect that set the age of consent to sex at sixteen, while contradictory laws deny access to contraception until age eighteen; so for two years the law exposes our youth to unwanted pregnancies. An intensive consistent counter strategy is needed to instill in all of our societies a sense of outrage that any of this can still be in existence decades after women have won the right to vote.
All of the scenarios I just outlined keep large numbers of people, young and old, enslaved psychologically, leaving them on the periphery of the productive sectors of society. These scenarios ought not to have a place in any world, especially not in today’s world, this era presenting as it does opportunities for incredible levels of human development, if one can be sufficiently present to avail oneself of the opportunities. The healthy expression of one’s sexuality is not only central to the nurture of the individual, but taken at a cumulative level it makes available a larger group of healthier psyches capable of the effort needed to move a nation forward in this fast paced world.
Yet, there are still large numbers of young women who are denied the right to education because they had a mistimed pregnancy. In Jamaica, one out of fourteen young girls get pregnant every year. This punitive approach kills youth potential, denying them and their societies of the benefits of their innate talents.
For the right of this young girl, and for the right of the many whose sexuality is used to deny them their fundamental human rights, IPPF/WHR and its partner in Jamaica affirm in our Declaration of Sexual Rights that: “We will not retreat in doing everything we can to safeguard for current and future generations...a world where women, men and young people everywhere, have control over their own bodies and therefore their destinies...and are free to pursue healthy sexual lives without fear.”
The business that we are involved in is not simply about doling out pills and condoms, but about improving the sexual and psychological well being of the world’s populations, creating an environment of acceptance for the diversity of sexualities, and respect for sexual rights.
The strategic framework that guides the focus of IPPF/WHR's Member Associations has three prongs that focus not only on the provision of services, but also on actively advocating for the policy changes that would protect and endorse the sexual rights of all persons and building strong institutions able to remain relevant and responsive to the real needs of the communities served. This is the commitment that FAMPLAN Jamaica has signed on to.
In 2012, IPPF/WHR and FAMPLAN find ourselves approaching six decades of existence. Today, FAMPLAN remains a significant player in the field of sexual and reproductive health in Jamaica, and IPPF is the largest global organization addressing these issues. As mature organizations, we have had some impressive results at the national and global levels. In Jamaica, fertility rates over the six decades have gone from 7 to 2.4. Across the Caribbean, and certainly in Jamaica, governments have taken on their responsibility for making sexual and reproductive health services available, and in several instances free of cost. While this provides a challenge to our Member Associations, it is a welcome development and a tribute to the pioneering work of trail blazers such as Dr. Lenworth Jacobs and Beth Jacobs.
We have also had impressive and world changing successes at the global level. To mention a couple, over the years, governments have signed on to several international conventions and charters acknowledging sexual and reproductive health as a fundamental human right, in part because of the work of IPPF/WHR and its members. More recently, through our joint interventions, also, the UN Millennium Development Goals now count access to sexual and Reproductive health services as one of its indicators of success.
Looking back over the last sixty years, it is important to note that our organizations are no longer the only game in town. Alongside us there are multiple powerful entities in this field. To maintain our impact and remain a force, we recognize that we cannot remain in a “business as usual” mode. For this reason, our organizations are currently recreating themselves.
The IPPF Manifesto to be launched globally from South Africa in November will define a robust and creative approach to addressing some of the toughest challenges in sexual health. A recently developed Performance-based Approach, which outlines ten indicators for guiding and measuring performance and allocating funding, will define the modus operandi of IPPF members. We wish to commend the FAMPLAN board, Executive Director St. Rachel Ustanny, and her staff for the recent and ongoing initiatives to expand and improve the FAMPLAN clinics and increase access to much needed services in St. Ann’s, Kingston, and Montego Bay.
I mentioned earlier the international charters and agreements signed by governments. I’ve always been concerned that, while these documents mean much to those who create the language and are involved in the struggle to bring the issues to government’s attention, to the countless men and women who operate at a huge distance from these international processes, with their lives locked in the everyday struggle for basic survival, these processes are invisible. Yet, these international processes are an essential part of that daily struggle, as they represent what their government acknowledges in writing as the basic entitlements of the people of the country, and these now include sexual and reproductive rights.
The challenge is to make these agreements real in the lives of the average young man and woman. This is where the rubber hits the road.
FAMPLAN finds itself ideally positioned to translate these documents into reality. Through the expansion of services, engaging partners to further the work of the association, community education programs, and honing the skills of its staff to respond sensitively to the special needs of all clients, FAMPLAN has been delivering on the promise of ensuring sexual health. But nowhere is the concern over sexual rights more keenly expressed than in relation to youth, a well-placed focus, given that 21% of the country’s population is under the age of twenty.
FAMPLAN has embarked on a comprehensive sexuality education program beginning with six schools in the parish of St Ann’s. The plan is to incrementally expand this to other schools in its catchment areas. This is backed by a well-formulated set of modules, which will serve as a model for other Caribbean MAs, and we thank you for it.
Sexuality education covers a gamut of areas and is central to preparing our youth to deal with some core issues in life. Currently, society places on youth the responsibility of managing their lives, avoiding pregnancy and other behaviors that put them at risk, without equipping them with the ability to do so. To effectively manage their sexual lives, youth need to be supported and educated to make informed choices. FAMPLAN’s focus in this area is highly commendable. And here I would like to acknowledge also the work of the members, past and present, of the Jamaica branch of the regional Youth Advocacy Movement, whose stalwart support of the FAMPLAN’s efforts to reach out to youth has allowed them to shape and implement programs that are relevant and creative.
In incremental steps we have seen the 55-year-old FAMPLAN build itself into a fully mature organization equipped with the infrastructure and vision that will allow it not only to survive, but to meet with and thrive against the background of spiraling demands of our technological society. IPPF/WHR pledges its ongoing support to FAMPLAN in its struggle to ensure that all people fully embrace the right to sexual well being and the level of self-assertion that comes with it.
In the final analysis, the success of IPPF’s advocacy efforts rely heavily on the quality of services provided by its members in 150 countries across the globe. I’d like to encourage all present to support FAMPLAN in whatever way you can to create an environment in Jamaica where a decision by a young person to have sex does not expose them to unwanted pregnancy or hold a death sentence over their head in this era of AIDS, because of laws that do not readily afford them access to contraceptives. Together, let’s create an environment where youth are afforded a voice and encouraged to contribute to the development process even before they become adults, an environment where sex is no longer an instrument of power, abuse, and discrimination. Let’s continue to work toward that day when sexual rights will be fully woven into the fabric of society, that day when a larger mass of people are psychologically ready to engage their highest potential to enhance individual and national development in this new world which demands it.