Columns

Women's rights and development

Lorenzo
Smith

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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Over the past couple weeks, Alando Terrelonge, the Member of Parliament (MP) for St Catherine East Central, shared on Twitter about some of the socio-economic problems — including education, poverty, and family planning — that faced his constituents. The MP did not stop at documenting the problems but also called for a culture shift.

In the MP's analysis, two points stood out to me. The first was when he opined: “A big problem we face in #education is poor parenting and the poverty of reproduction. When children are forced to take turns to determine which of them is going to school on what days; or have zero guidance/encouragement due to poor parenting, it does not matter how good the education system is. They are likely to fail.”

His second point was that, “Until then, better promotional campaigns for reproductive health & contraceptive use, rights of women to choose, importance of education for every child, teacher n principals must report absent children & visit homes, mandatory parenting seminars, etc.” The latter was most poignant for me because it is my firm belief that if we address women's rights we can fix half of society's problems.

It is uncanny that we are in a country where our women did not have to fight for the right to vote, a country where we boast that more women are managers, and a place where women across classes carry the country on their backs. Here, we are arguing for women's rights and empowerment. The sad truth is that our women are still policed and governed by the dictates of patriarchy. This sort of dictatorial rule is pervasive in the home and is, sadly, supported by the heavy hand of the church. If more women are graduating from the halls of higher education, more women are seated in the chair of managers, why then are they being dictated to, or more broadly, why are we campaigning for women's rights? The simple answer is, when we address women's rights, we are addressing the problems in society. As the adage goes, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

Consider this: If our women had the right to choose, coupled with rights-based education focused on autonomy and decision-making, it simply means that we would have a greater chance at less unplanned pregnancies. This would also go some way in addressing the problems of poverty and poor parenting as outlined by MP Terrelonge. One might argue that women can easily buy contraceptives and/or condoms. I hasten to say it is not that easy. Most women, especially women of a particular socio-economic standing and of certain denominations, are not equipped or dare I say do not have the power to negotiate condom use and or contraceptives. These women are heavily dependent on the male figure in the relationship. With that, negotiating contraceptives and condom use can be dangerous for these women. Just look at our statistics on domestic violence.

Further buttressing my point, regional director of International Planned Parenthood Federation, Carmen Barroso, at an event at the Commission on the Status of Women, told the audience that if the vision of a world free of poverty and inequality was to be realised, securing women's sexual and reproductive rights “is not only important in itself, but essential”. The case is clear for us in Jamaica, so let's secure women's reproductive and sexual rights so that we can have less unplanned pregnancies which would, in turn, ease the burden on our social safety net.

The head of UN Population Fund, Babatunde Osotimehin argues that, “Men must learn what gender equality means and stop trying to control women's lives if future development goals are to have any real traction.” He further stated that existing power structures are preventing women from exercising their rights, which will undermine the impact of the next set of sustainable development goals. We can see that here in Jamaica, and again the MP highlighted examples of the impact on our society.

Osotimehin further supports my point of access and negotiation when he questioned why it is possible for men to have access to condoms without any question, but when it comes to providing contraception to women and girls, the whole world comes against you. It's about power.

We must get to the place where men accept gender equality. Men want to determine what women do, and tell them what to do and how to do it. As long as this is continued we will forever be dealing wish poor parenting and a poverty of reproduction which, by and large, leads to poor education and acts as a contributor to crime, a luta continua.

I am calling for a more effective sexual education campaign in our schools so that more girls can be informed of their sexual and reproductive rights. Let's empower women with that right to choose.

Lorenzo Smith is an educator with interests in social justice. Send comments to the Observer or to lorenzsmitt@gmail.com.

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