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A crisis of sexuality

Sunday, June 3, 2012

This is the second in a series of columns on the national gender policy. The National Gender Policy and social development gender equality needs to be part of the DNA or mainstream of national development. In this column, I focus on two key social aspects of the national gender policy: health and well-being, and education.


Health and well-being
The World Health Organisation constitution states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” Health is also a pre-condition of a country’s socio-economic development. A healthy population is more productive and attractive to investors.


Gender is now recognised globally as a factor in health access, equity and outcomes. Men and women have different levels of awareness about their health, and use health care services differently. Women’s access to primary health care tends to be focused on gynaecology, obstetrics and infant health. At community health clinics, women may be seen seeking contraception and other reproductive health services, making ante or post-natal visits, or taking babies in arms and toddlers for immunisations and check-ups.


In fact, community clinics tend to be perceived by men as a ‘female space’. This is linked to men’s lack of inclination to visit clinics to address their health needs such as contraception, HIV/Aids testing, routine check-ups, prostate cancer screening, etc. One would find more men in emergency rooms with knife and bullet wounds, injuries caused by road accidents, and heart attacks and strokes.


Poor women, girls suffer
Despite the focus on gynaecology and obstetrics, maternal mortality is a major cause for concern and the country may not achieve its MDG target by 2015. It is directly linked to what the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development refers to as ‘a crisis of sexuality’ in the society.


We are a highly sexual society, as evidenced in our music, dance, Carnival and chutney festivals, and so on. Despite this, we have not effectively addressed sexuality in our policies and programmes—even when faced with high levels of teenage pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/Aids.


In Trinidad and Tobago, abortion is illegal even in situations of rape or incest. Lynette Seebaran-Suite states, “Under our current common law practice, abortion is legal to preserve the health and life of the woman. But…many are of the opinion that abortion is entirely illegal in Trinidad and Tobago, and this opens up the flood gates to backstreet abortions every day.”


Poor girls and women experience methods that include: inserting bicycle spokes into the uterus; douching with bleach or hot Dettol; eating a green pineapple or pawpaw; drinking hot stout with olive oil or quinine tablets; ingesting Cytotec, an over-the-counter drug which results in haemorrhaging; having a ‘massage’ by a village midwife; throwing oneself down the stairs; and so on. Do these look like 19th and 20th century methods in a country claiming developed country status?


Aspire’s research indicates that some 3,000 to 4,000 women are treated at public hospitals annually for the effects of unsafe terminations, and the CSO reports that over $1 million is drained from the public purse each month to treat the complications.


While poor women and girls suffer these tragic fates, their middle and upper class sisters can afford abortions conducted by medical doctors in private medical clinics. Thousands of such illegal abortions are estimated to be performed annually. The law and everyday practice in our society therefore discriminates against poor girls and women.


Policy measures to promote health and well-being
The Government may wish to adopt a gender policy that would enable the health system to provide women, men and young people with the best information about sex and sexuality, to allow them to make informed decisions. The policy would also promote gender-aware services: sexual and reproductive health, breast and cervical cancer, prostate cancer, male reproductive health, and sexually transmitted infections.


The national gender policy includes many other measures to address men’s and women’s specific health needs, including men’s and women’s equal access to appropriate, affordable and quality health care throughout their life cycle. For men, the policy would promote public awareness to discourage risk-taking behaviours, and encourage health-seeking behaviours. It would put in place more men’s health clinics, and introduce family friendly hospital practices, eg, fathers’ involvement in pre-natal, birthing and post-natal activities, and their ability to stay overnight with ill children.


Education and human capital
Trinidad and Tobago’s population (or human capital) is its most valuable resource. Its capacity to compete globally in a rapidly changing technological environment depends on how it educates and trains its population. A major challenge is the increasing dropout rates of boys and girls from secondary school. While 65 per cent of university students are women, the technical and vocational tertiary education sector is dominated by men. Gender shapes the occupational segregation in the labour force, as discussed in last week’s column.


As we know, school is an important agent of socialisation. Together with the family (in all its Caribbean forms), school shapes relations between boys and girls and influences their career paths. It is both a formal site of gender socialisation (the curriculum, text books, teacher expectations of girls and boys, etc) and an informal site (the playground, extra-curricular activities, etc).


The education system makes a statement about the society’s gender ideology based both on what it includes and excludes. For example, the country has a focus on industrial development, but girls and women have a low participation rate in technical and vocational occupations.


Importantly, there is little attention to health and family life education. This, despite the early engagement of children in sexual activity as we heard during the recent parliamentary debate on the Children’s Bill, and the high rates of teenage pregnancy causing girls to drop out of school and affecting their life chances.


Examples of policy measures to enhance gender-aware education
The gender policy would enable the education system to identify and resolve gender issues such as enrolment, performance, attitudes and behaviours, curriculum development and teacher education. It would promote gender aware curricula, textbooks, educational resources, teaching attitudes and classroom interaction, with a view to eliminating gender bias and encouraging social values of equality and justice.


The policy would support the expansion of secondary and post-secondary education in science and technology including agricultural technology, and ICT development in rural communities to address the disadvantage faced by rural women and men.


It would promote innovative approaches to health and family life education. In the context of a multi religious society, HFLE would be responsive and respectful to different institutions and student levels, and seek to promote positive life choices, reduce teenage pregnancy and the incidence of HIV/Aids and STIs.


In conclusion, having a national gender policy would address key challenges facing the nation which have their roots in the society’s unequal and inequitable gender system.


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