In 2012 there were one thousand three hundred and forty teenage girls who gave birth, with the majority coming out of the Belize District……that figure increased in 2013 to one thousand three hundred and seventy three with the majority of girls coming out of the Cayo District. In ratio to the country’s population, it may not be what one would call a staggering figure, but adolescent pregnancy is an issue that should raise a red light, not only because a teenager may not be fully prepared to enter motherhood but also because any young girl engaged in sexual intercourse under the age of 16, is illegal. In our quest to find out more on the topic of adolescent pregnancy, we visited Joan Burke, the Executive Director of the Belize Family Life Association (BFLA). For you to have clear understanding of what it is that BFLA is mandated to do, we asked Burke to explain.
“We recognize that BFLA is not an island. So firstly we network with other partners in our advocacy. We advocate for laws and policies that are friendly towards young persons including adolescents. Laws must exist that will protect young persons and protect the rights of young persons and also if those rights are violated, we have to look at what is the course of action to be taken on the violators? When it comes to the legal environment, we must ensure that we hold what we call those duty bearers accountable for the protection of children and adolescents, whether it has to do, if its rape, incest because the law as it exists, states that a person can consent to sex at the age of 16 so any person under 16 who becomes pregnant, that should be considered rape because that person cannot consent.”
Adolescent pregnancies can create myriad problems, not only for the teen that gets pregnant but for the family on a whole, as most times you find that either the child leaves home, short of an education or a form of employment or the teen’s mother is left with the added responsibility. Either way it is not a situation that proves beneficial for anyone involved. While some years back, the issue of finance could have been a factor for adolescent pregnancies, when it comes to the purchasing of condoms or birth control, that can no longer be attributed to this social dilemma as there are many facilities around the country including the BFLA that provide these precautionary measures for free with counselling and guidance as an added benefit. It begs the question, where does the problem lie? Burke weighed in on this for us, as she speaks very strongly on what the young persons are being taught.
“There are many factors and one of the things that I believe, when I say we, it’s the nation, we need to hold ourselves responsible for what is happening with our children including adolescents today. The unwillingness on the part of many to provide young persons with the kind of information that they need…. If you look at the schools, for example, where they have a program where the issue of sex, responsibility, decision making responsibility and all that are being taught, you will see that there is a big difference in terms of the number of adolescent pregnancies. Nobody wants to know that their 10 or 12 year old is sexually active. We know that it is happening. I think the time has come for the discussion on sex, sexuality, sexual responsibility to be held in the homes as well as in the schools. The Ministry of Education, I think has to make the firm decision to bring the church at the table, saying that what we have been doing over the years has failed. Yes, there is a place for morality and religious principles and all that but it is not making a difference with these young people. We are battling with the social media and we have no control over the social media and therefore my thinking is that we come to the table, there is an existing curriculum, social partners, the church and the government; we must come and say, ‘okay, this is the information that we need to provide to our young people’. You would be amazed at how ill-informed our young people are.”
As we mentioned, BFLA is a service provider that focuses on sexual reproduction and health, particularly for young individuals. It is not our goal to exploit the challenges of young persons but rather to sensitize those who are unaware of the social challenges being faced by many parents, families and young persons, with the hope that individuals among our viewers will see how we can fix this societal ordeal. In line with that goal, we asked Burke to share with us some of the situations that they are faced with at the BFLA.
“We have seen cases, for example, where 12- year-old girls are infected with syphilis, with genital warts and of course we have seen young girls pregnant. We have had 13 year old girls who are infected with HIV. We have had also had a couple of mothers with girls with disabilities who have actually brought in their daughters for us to put them on some form of contraceptives. We have seen it all; we have had circumstances of rape, date rape because we had a councilor on staff as well so all of those situations we see come through the doors of BFLA.”
Adolescent pregnancy is a situation that cannot be conquered by any single organisation or individual but requires more drastic movements by multiple partners with support from government. Burke says while there are facts many are still refusing to embrace, the time has come where it is a necessity.
“The teen pregnancy or adolescent pregnancy is a result of what has not been done prior to that young person becoming sexually active and the only way to prevent that is to have the conversation that many are not prepared to have. I can tell you, there are certain high schools where on certain days it is half full especially in the south, they are half full. Why? Because that Friday, the citrus growers are being paid, the banana growers are being paid and it’s something that the school has to deal with because the girls are out there. They go out there and they do transactions. We are seeing, and I am glad that BNE has done some intervention to try and address the situation. There has been a proliferation of bars on the Southern Highway and if you go into those bars there are young, young girls. WE have found as young as fourteen years in those bars. We have to come together, there are realities that we may not want to face but if we are serious about preventing adolescent pregnancies in this country, we have to face the music and we have to make some decisions that may challenge our own moral values but the decisions have to be made.”
Today’s segment on adolescent pregnancy is the first in a series of features that we will be airing on this topic. Look out for another segment on adolescent pregnancy on Tuesday evening.