57 Years of Sexual and Reproductive Health in Barbados
If we were to take a poll of the needs in the room, we would probably find that we share at least one thing in common “the need for something more, something greater in our lives.” That something more may take different forms depending on the individual – better health, more wealth, better business outcomes, more time, more leisure activity, a more fulfilling relationship with our partner, more sex, better sex, a more fulfilling job or maybe just a job. That impetus for something more fuels the pace of development of our world. As the world population increases, our minds, our technologies, our capacities have had to speed up in order to keep pace with the growing demands for greater output, better results, better products, better quality lifestyles. In the past, a phenomenal discovery emerged about every decade, today we can hardly keep pace with the daily outpourings of life-changing discoveries. Events in one remote part of the world can have instant global impact, expanding the possibilities for shared growth and shared destruction.
So… what is the relevance of all of this to our gathering here today? What does any of this have to do with the BFPA? Well, everything. In order to remain competitive or at the very least maintain a respectable level of autonomy in this fast paced world every country needs to develop a human capacity to cope with and respond to the changing dynamics. This requires organizations at all levels that are highly skilled, flexible and creative, capable of staying ahead of the game by taking constant readings of the pulse of society and developing proactive responses. This becomes even more critical for entities like the BFPA which are involved in creating social change. Let us for a moment take a look at the complexity of the challenge in which BFPA and all of IPPF’s members are engaged as they try to respond to the growing demands of their societies’ for a better life.
The healthy expression of sexuality is fundamental to one’s well being and ability to carve out a more satisfying life. Promoting rights in relation to sex and sexuality, the BFPA has taken on what might be the most controversial and divisive issue on the planet. Understanding the core importance of these issues to human development, the BFPA holds its ground, sometimes against very strong opposition. Sex is at the core of our physical existence, as sperm and egg merge in a dance of life. 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 sexuality- that unique expression of one’s individuality - would be something to be treasured.
But what we so often find instead 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 unplanned pregnancies; women’s lives daily come to an abrupt end because of botched abortions; in some instances right here in the Caribbean young girls are forced to marry their rapists in exchange for 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.
These scenarios keep large numbers of people enslaved psychologically, leaving them outside or on the periphery of the productive sectors of society. These scenarios ought not to have a place in any world, but especially not in today’s world, this era presenting as it does opportunities for incredible levels of human development. The healthy expression of sexuality is central to healthier psyches capable moving a nation forward in this fast paced world. Yet decades after women won the long battle to have the right to cast their vote, there are still large numbers of young women who are denied the right to education because they had a mistimed pregnancy. This punitive approach kills youth potential. For the right of this young girl and for the right of the many whose fundamental human rights are denied because of their sexuality IPPF and its members including the BFLA have adopted a landmark document IPPF’s Declaration of Sexual Rights. Prepared with extensive consultations around the world and with the participation of the most prominent experts, the Declaration is a pioneer in the field of human rights. At the core of this Declaration’s principles is the belief 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 IPPF’s Declaration of Sexual Rights is supported by international treaties and agreements which have been developed over the years to endorse the right of the human being to a healthy standard of living, free of coercion and discrimination. To mention just two of these – there’s the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts as a fundamental human right, “the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” Then in 1979 there was the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women which framed these rights specifically to ensure non-discrimination against women. A challenge however is that of connecting international agreements to the everyday reality of the average person, the single mother in Barbados, for example who is caught up in the daily struggles of putting bread on the table? While the charters and agreements mean much to those who create the language and who are involved in the struggle to make governments accountable for protecting citizens’rights, to the countless men and women who operate at a huge distance from these international processes, they are simply a blip on the television screen, if that much. Yet, these international processes are an essential part of that daily struggle for basic survival 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. How do we make these agreements real in the lives of the average man? This is where the rubber hits the road.
On the one hand there are the international government agreements invisible to the average person; on the other hand there is the BFPA which is itself the provider of services that help deliver some of these rights essential to human development. Then there is the reality of a world moving at breakneck speed spawning technologies, possibilities, synergies and demands that require dynamic organizational responses. It is a big challenge!
Over the years we at the IPPF have been able to watch the growth of the BFPA in its ability to make good on that challenge. With fifty seven years of history behind it, the BFPA is one of the oldest of our member associations in the Western Hemisphere Region. Almost six decades ago, the early founders of the BFPA recognized the right of families and individuals in Barbados to control their fertility and the direction of their lives and they called on IPPF for assistance, which we gladly provided. From that seed has sprung an organization which is now a leading force on sexual and reproductive health and rights in this country, with services which go well past family planning to include also Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS prevention, pregnancy terminations, gynecological services, sterilizations, colposcopy, pregnancy tests, pap smears and a range of counseling services.
I’d like here to recognize the role of the government in creating the supportive environment that has made the growth of the BFPA possible. This support is demonstrated in a generous financial subsidy, which is the best endorsement of BFPA’s work. We look forward to the government’s continued support of this most important work at a sustained or increased level. The government of Barbados is recognized across the region in yet another area which demonstrates its and commitment to women’s rights. .. as two decades ago it took the lead in making abortion available, thus ensuring that women need not be the victims of back street abortionists.
I’d like here to pay special tribute to the outstanding volunteers and staff who over the years have lent their commitment and leadership to the growth of the BFPA. And just to mention a few - the late Sir Clyde Gollop, a former BFPA manager and a strong advocate for our cause ; the late Sir Jack Dear who served on IPPF/WHR’s board; the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Dame Billie Miller, a national and international stalwart on sexual and reproductive rights who served on the board of BFPA and IPPF/WHR and who was significant in moving forward the abortion bill; Charles Alleyne, who brought the organization into prominence during his 14 years as executive director and Past Presidents Christine Barrow and Erskine Callender who served the association so well. There are just too many to mention here but we thank all who have given of their service. I’d like to acknowledge also the continued dedication of today’s board and staff. Under the leadership of the President Jefferson Kirton and the Executive Director George Griffith, the BFPA continues to make huge strides while remaining a champion of services for men, the neglected sex.
We are impressed by the BFPA’s relationship with the media. We are impressed too by the BFPA’s partnerships in meeting shared goals as they contribute to national decision making in collaboration with other organizations.
But nowhere is the BFPA’s concern over sexual rights more keenly expressed than in relation to youth. With 50% of the country’s population under the age of twenty, without a concerted effort to ensure access to comprehensive sexuality education and services for youth, we are moving toward a crisis in the country’s human development, as we compromise the chances of our greatest human asset to fully realize their potential. 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. Recently BFPA publicized their intention of ensuring that adolescents are not subjected to unwanted pregnancy and to HIV/AIDS because of lack of access to contraceptives. We commend them for giving equal weight to the rights of youth who are less capable of having a public voice. Youth too have a desire for “more” in their lives. They too have the right to realize their dreams and aspirations – a goal that becomes that much more difficult or even out of reach because of the onslaught of HIV/AIDS or an unplanned pregnancy.
The BFPA’s education program in some schools points in the right direction. In their desire to reach out to youth, BFPA in their wisdom have actively engaged youth in shaping effective youth interventions. They do so through the Youth Advocacy Movement (YAM) a trained core of creative peer educators. The stellar work of the YAM has won the, national recognition as leaders in youth friendly programs. I’d like to particularly recognize the outstanding leadership of LaToya Williams who has emerged as an outstanding international youth advocate, giving youth a voice in several international fora including recently at the UN.
Ever since its early beginnings, the BFPA has worked at making real the intention of the international human rights and sexual rights agreements … by reinforcing the sense that being violated by physical and sexual abuse is not a woman’s lot in life; the sense that taking responsibility for one’s actions and choices is intimately linked with the outcomes of one’s life; the sense that whereas the primary responsibility for shaping one’s life lies with the individual, governments ought to be held accountable for the promises made which support this individual impetus.
In practical terms, this translates on the individual level for instance, into having sex with a condom; into having sex by choice not by coercion; into having the number of kids one plans for and can adequately care for; into enjoying the right to express one’s sexuality while respecting the rights of others to do so, regardless of their age, sexual orientation or gender identity. On the national level, this translates into, among other things – a reduced incidence of teenage pregnancies and of unwanted pregnancies more generally; a lower incidence of HIV/AIDS; and especially, an environment where sex is not an instrument of power and abuse and where human beings with a higher level of self realization are able to contribute more meaningfully to other spheres of life.
We have seen the fifty seven year old BFPA build itself into a mature organization equipped with the infrastructure, human capacity and vision that will allow it to thrive against the background of spiraling demands of our technological society. The IPPF/Western Hemisphere Region salutes BFPA on fifty seven years of unflagging effort to ensure ready access to sexual and reproductive health services to the people of Barbados. The IPPF pledges its ongoing support to the BFPA 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 relies heavily on the quality of services provided by its members in 150 countries across the globe. We are particularly proud of the fruits of BFPA in Barbados. Together we will continue to work toward that day when sexual rights will be fully woven into the fabric of society, that day when we come closer to realizing with more ease “that something more, that something greater that we each want in our lives.”