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TALKING SEX: Many rivers to cross


JULIETTE BYNOE-SUTHERLAND

TALKING SEX: Many rivers to cross

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REMEMBER THE TIME when “family planning” or avoiding unplanned pregnancies was shrouded in secrecy? The ability of women to control the number of pregnancies they had was very limited.

Today, the right to access contraception through a variety of means is a routine part of a woman’s health experience and fiercely guarded. This was not always so and there was tremendous initial controversy in changing social norms in the early to mid-20th century.

Thanks to the pioneering work of Lady Grace Adams, Sir Clyde Gollop, Dame Billie Miller, Nurse Beryl Ward, Elrene Sealy, Dr G. Meerabai, Charles Alleyne, George Griffith and the many dedicated community nurses and educators too numerous to name, the idea of contraception is no longer controversial.

However, there are many sexual and reproductive health issues equally as problematic and in need of advocacy and consensus building.

Just ask Tre-ann, a 17-year-old student at a local tertiary institution who asked me if she could see a Barbados Family Planning Association (BFPA) doctor for a suspected sexually transmitted infection (STIs) without her parents. Her parents do not know she is sexually active.

Imagine the challenge facing the physician presented with a 16-or 17-year-old who needs treatment for a STI without a parent present.

Across the health system, a physician has a choice to treat based on his or her ethical oath and some do. Others request the teen to return with a guardian. Although the common law provides legal protection for doctors treating mature minors, in absence of clear legislation, many are reluctant to treat without parental consent unless it is an emergency.

Therefore, access to services for sexually active 16-and 17-year-olds remain an elusive battle yet to be won. For many, Tre-ann should not be sexually active, even if legally permitted. She should have abstained and therefore should face the consequences of her sinful fornication. I like to call this “the wages of sin is death” argument.

Why not move the age of sexual consent from 16 to 18 so that there is no disconnect between the age you can lawfully have sex (16) and the age of maturity (18) when you can lawfully seek treatment without parents.

This view would immediately criminalise a significant number of 16-and 17-year-olds who are having sex with each other. This is what I call the “overkill” argument. What about the parents’ rights to know and control what their children are doing or how they are being treated? If not parents, who will pay for treatment and medication? What about the human rights of the adolescent? All of these views and the absence of consensus have slowed progress.

Teen sexuality is complicated. At BFPA, we know that diverse approaches are needed beyond fixing the law to allow Tre-ann access without her parents. We want teens to delay sexual activity and know that some teens are committed to abstaining and should be supported. Those already pursuing healthy sexual exploration with peers need to learn safe practices and relationship skills.

Many primary and secondary schools are confronting risky or promiscuous sexual activity by students and current curricula are weak on sexualities. Although, many parents do an excellent job at preparing their teens for sexual decision-making, some parents do not provide the information or positive role model that teens need.

Tre-ann can get her information from the Internet or a peer, or she can buy medication and self-treat. At BFPA, we would prefer her to have unfettered access to doctors, nurses and social work professionals to make the necessary psychosocial and clinical assessments of her situation and provide her with treatment and counselling as needed.

So there are many rivers to cross in the sexual and reproductive health arena in Barbados. Over the next few months BFPA will bring you the issues, the true stories and the diverse perspectives that make up our association.

Juliette Bynoe-Sutherland is the executive director at the BFPA. The health clinic can be reached at 427-2027 or [email protected]

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