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Business as usual for new BFPA head

Gercine Carter

Business as usual for new BFPA head

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After 60 years dealing with the reproductive health of women, the Barbados Family Planning Association (BFPA) finally has its first female executive director.

Juliette Bynoe-Sutherland is ready for the job ahead. “I have really just come to add that institutional strengthening and resource mobilization component” says the 46-year-old attorney at law.

Public health has always been one of her passions. She told EASY magazine “I happily say that I muddled into public health. Many years ago I would have gotten the opportunity to work politically in public health with Liz Thompson (a former Minister of Health) and she thought it was the area for me because I had a broad liberal arts, history and political science background.”

Even then Juliette was either agitating or arguing about some advocacy issues which concerned women and girls.

From the broad liberal arts background she moved into a specialisation in health planning, policy and finance, securing a national development scholarship to study the three areas at the London School of Economics’ London School of Hygiene.

Later, recognising that law played a vital in public health, she went back to school, completed legal studies and was called to bar in Barbados. She still has a limited private practice.

The decision to use her legal qualifications in her chosen area did raise some questions among some of her peers.

She is one of a few in the Caribbean who have opted to combine law and public health, referring to themselves as public health lawyers.

“I think the Barbados Family Planning Association was attracted to that,” Juliette says, and she is very clear about what her emphasis is going to be.

“We are an organisation focused on sex, sexualities, sexual health and sexual rights. That is our value-added, our strategic focus.”

She gets all excited about the job at hand when she launches into details. “By sex we are talking about healthy sexual lifestyles, age-appropriate lifestyles, so it means we do not necessarily want to have 10, 11 , 12, 13-year-olds sexually active, so we are interested in abstinence and delayed sexual debut.”

“But as young people get older we are also about providing adolescents with information and education that they can make the right choices and being able to recognise that when people come to us, they are most likely young people who are pursuing healthy sexuality and those that might be impacted by sexual exploitation.”

The doors of the Barbados Family Planning Association on the corner of Bay Street and Jemmotts Lane are open to all, and Juliette wants to ensure that the tradition of welcoming any and everyone who walks through them to seek out the services of the agency is upheld.

She observed “The BFPA is deeply entrenched in the Barbadian community as a place where you can go as non-judgmental, non-discriminatory, with serious health professionals in nursing, medicine and social work.”

There is evidence the demand for the services is growing, judging from the busy clinics and the constant traffic in and out, as well as the numbers seen waiting in the reception area.

“Our doors are open to everyone. We are interested in all the diverse sexualities that exist in Barbados and want to be a place where people feel comfortable knowing they can come and discuss the issues around their sexual orientation and the health needs associated with that” Juliette said.

The non-judgemental, non-discriminatory approach is proving to be a drawing card. Daily, sex workers, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual communities join ordinary mothers making use of the services.

“In the privacy of the consultation room we can make sure people have the services and the support that they need. We understand diversity in all of its forms whether sexual, religious or gender,” says the new executive director.

“We are going to do a lot more of raising awareness of sexual health issues so that people can come and seek advice on those questions you might feel awkward about asking your regular GP.”

On staff are a full-time medical director, who is also a gynaecologist, three full-time nurse/midwives, a social worker, who also runs the youth programme, and a psychologist. They are supported by a host of other part-time professionals.

Juliette is the first to admit she stands on the shoulders of previous Family Planning Association stalwarts like Dame Billie Miller, the late Sir Clyde Gollop and the late Charles Alleyne.

 Prominently displayed in her office is an imposing photograph of the late gynaecolgist Dr Yvonne Rochelle.

“I put it there to remind me that you come here but you build on a legacy of women who would have walked that walk of helping other women in Barbados to be able to control their reproductive health. I put it there to remind me when I come through the door every morning that you have not made yourself. You are following in the footsteps of others.”

Juliette’s first order of business will be expanding awareness of the services offered by the BFPA. She plans to do “some rebranding; sensitizing the public about what we are about – sex, sexualities, sexual health and sexual rights”.

The focus has long gone beyond distributing condoms and Intra-uterine devices.

“It is my job to build on what George Griffith and previous boards would have done,” she says.

 That there is no strong voice addressing the issue of young male sexual and reproductive health, troubles her. With sexually-transmitted diseases on the increase in Barbados and HIV/AIDS statistics showing that men are the most affected group in the population, Juliette wonders, “Who is really attending to the sexual and reproductive health of young males?”

“As an organisation, it is something that we have to find a partner” she says and she is looking to civil society to identify such a partner.

 She once headed the Pan-Caribbean partnership on HIV in the area of resource mobilization, located in the CARICOM office, a position in which she expended a lot of time working on many regional advocacy issues to do with HIV.

Married to Member of Parliament for St George South, Dwight Sutherland, she is definite in her views about a woman’s right to carve her own career path while managing the demands of a marriage.

She has had her share of juggling family responsibilities with a hectic career but made critical choices at junctures in her life when she determined a competing interest for her time and attention should take a back seat to family responsibilities.

“Yes, we women can have it all but sometimes not at the same time” she explained. “You have to make some sacrifices. A woman can do anything that she sets her mind to, but there are choices and sacrifices that you make along the way that people don’t always understand or appreciate.”

Now she is ready for this her latest undertaking and says confidently “I am blessed to have very strong family support. My husband is really a partner in my ability to work professionally, so I am blessed.”

For the couple, their six-year-old son Josiah remains their first priority, however.

Meantime she is clear that “I will never be ashamed about talking about issues with women and girls because people seem to think when you do that you are anti-male. No you are not”.

 There is still an “unfinished agenda of issues” concerning women that Juliette aims to address.