Mon | Sep 25, 2017

St Rachel Ustanny | Please save our girls

Published:Saturday | January 14, 2017 | 1:00 AMSt Rachel Ustanny

Our future depends on the success of our girls, yet their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are disregarded and minimised every day. It is not uncommon to hear Jamaicans say, 'Is just a little sex'. The recent allegation of rape of a 15-year-old girl by a 64-year-old pastor, if true, is just one example of the denial of the SRHR of our girls.

National statistics reveal that the Government routinely fails to protect our girls and empower them to act against SRHR violations, which leaves them vulnerable and threatens Jamaica's ability to realise Vision 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There is evidence that the health and safety of our girls are at risk. The adolescent fertility rate is 18 per cent of all births annually; girls are four to five times more likely to be infected by HIV than boys; 48.8 per cent of adolescent girls and 16 per cent of adolescent boys did not consent to sex the first time; the average age of initial sex for girls and boys is 14 years; and there is declining knowledge of HIV among adolescents and youth.

Jamaica spends more than US$2,000 per year to provide health-care services for each adolescent mother. In 2012, there were more than 6,900 births to adolescents, which enables us to approximate an annual expenditure of over J$1.07 billion to care for adolescent mothers in that year.

Girls have limited knowledge about their human rights. They routinely lack the knowledge and skills needed to be key actors in solving SRHR problems. The current abstinence-only approach adopted by the Health and Family Life Education curriculum fails to take into consideration the needs of girls who are at risk of violation of their sexual and reproductive rights.

Further, the laws do not permit girls under 16 years old to access the health technologies needed to protect them from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Laws protecting SRHR are weak in their protection of girls' and women's SRHR in different contexts: the workplace, in public, at home, when underage, when disabled, and to address the needs of the aged female population.

The discussion about the alleged rape of the 15-year-old girl by the Moravian pastor is devoid of an examination of her SRHR; the financial and developmental implications of SRHR violations on the nation; and the legislative deficiencies around gender-based violence (GBV). In other jurisdictions, the accused Moravian pastor, if found guilty, would be labelled a paedophile. By labeling him a rapist, as opposed to a paedophile; he is relieved of the full implication of his crime.

Support for the these persons promotes the institutionalisation of SRHR violations against women and girls; encourages intergenerational sex, which is a leading cause of girls' disproportionate HIV infection rate when compared to boys; perpetuates gender inequality; and vilifies the victim.

Women and girls constitute the majority of the membership of the Church, therefore, an ongoing campaign promoting SRHR and gender equality is a fitting action for the Church to undertake to support the advancement of women and girls.

I call on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to urgently establish a technical multisectoral committee comprised of specialist organisations in SRHR to design a comprehensive strategic response to address the problem of GBV and lack of protection of women's and girls', as well as boys' SRHR. This committee is essential because an effective response will require attention to individual competency issues, intervention strategies/approaches, the legal and policy environment, capacity development of implementing agencies, reporting and redress mechanisms, and availability of and access to quality sexual and reproductive health services.

- St Rachel Ustanny, MSc, BSc (Hons) is CEO of the Jamaica Family Planning Association. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.