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Speech on women’s right to reproductive health care, delivered at the Caribbean Forum on Population, Youth and Development 2018.

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Greetings all. Let’s gyaff about access to information, access to services and the inequalities that exists in the distribution of these as it relates to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Information has the ability to shape narratives and narratives have the ability to shape culture. So, when it comes to providing information, it is important that we get it right. One of the things affecting many Caribbean countries is the high rate of adolescent pregnancy. Yet, with very few notable exceptions, the Caribbean remains a place that is resistant to comprehensive sexual education due to miseducation, religious fundamentalism and political interests.

Currently, Guyana has the Health & Family Life program, which includes sexual education. Unfortunately, this program does not exist in a majority of schools and most glaringly, it takes an abstinence only approach and is often very useless in explaining issues of consent, body, abuse and is not inclusive of varying sexualities and gender identities. Abstinence only approaches do not prepare young people for the world.

I became a mother at 16, a lot later than many of my friends I went to school with. We became sexually active and later pregnant, not because we were “force ripe” as we would say in Guyanese parlance, but because we did not have access to information on our changing bodies due to abstinence only sex education programs or the complete absence of them.

We were expected to know what to do or what not to do. At every point, we were reminded that the beginning of a pregnancy meant an end of opportunities – but yet no one thought it important for us to talk about sex because of fears that talking about something somehow encourages it. I honestly do not understand that misguided line of thinking. As my friend Andaiye would say, give me a confounded chance.

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For many of us who got pregnant, many of our educational, economic, social and political opportunities and dreams did end. The more privileged of us were able to reintegrate into private school. There was no school reintegration policy as is currently being worked on by the Ministry of Education and the Guyana Equality Forum, most notably the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

There have been adjustments over the years to the HFLE program, but it is still lacking and even in the most progressive of schools, falls short of touching on contraception and abortion care. We have 20-year-old mothers with three children, all different ages because they do not have information on family planning. When we speak of inter-generational poverty and breaking the cycle of repeat pregnancies in young mothers, we must examine the role in-access to reproductive services plays in perpetuating a cycle of unequal gender balance relations and economic inequalities, particularly in rural communities.

While abortion has been legal in Guyana since the passing of the 1995 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill, we continue to have abortion related complications and deaths because neither information nor services are readily available. Making these inaccessible is a tactic used by the Right to hinder women’s access to reproductive healthcare. It is just one in many ways that religious fundamentalists seek to infringe on women’s rights and bodily autonomy. This often results in women choosing to either take matters into their own hands, or going to a “bottom-house clinic” to have the procedure done.

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There are too many cases of women gaining injuries, becoming sterile and even dying as a result of botched abortions. This was seen in 2012 in the case of 19-year-old Karen Badal who died at the hands of a hack doctor and more recently in 2016, a young woman who injected her stomach with a poisonous substance – from which she died – because she was pregnant and did not want to be.

The stigma associated with abortion in most societies such as Guyana, remains a hindering factor for women getting rid of unwanted pregnancies, even if they are able to. This stigma has been fostered over several generations, aided on by our deep religious values that we were pounded in to us from years of colonialist teachings and writings.

We do not need long failed approaches; we need ones supported by facts and not beliefs. We need politicians who care less about political interests and power and more about ensuring we have a safe and well-informed populace. As we’ve covered and proven many times already, not talking about sex and reproductive health can be dangerous. Not being able to access it can be even more so.

That is why we as advocates and movement builders should demand more and hold our leaders accountable. We have way too many spaces such as these filled with bureaucracy and inefficiency under the guise of being apolitical and separate. We need to become more radical in our approach, we have way too many policies and bodies but very little implementation. It is time that cycle stops. Leaders, you cannot keep asking to hear our voices and then silence us when we speak.

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