By Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor
Teenage pregnancy is not a new issue, as most of the comments in the newspapers would have us believe. Neither is the prevalence particular to Trinidad and Tobago as globally, countries have reported that there have been rising rates in early sexual activity, hypersexualised teenagers and increased peer pressure to ‘try a ting, nuh girl!’.
This is an alarming social issue and when we encounter a teenager or child who is pregnant, instead of jumping to conclusions, let us ask the questions: Are you a victim of sexual abuse? Have you been raped?
Violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world. Research shows that female survivors of sexual violence are at increased risk for poor sexual, reproductive and mental health problems.
Teen mothers are often presented as being problematic and the focus has been on the factors above, instead of the underlying issues of sexual assault and child rape.
Recent increases in teenage pregnancies must therefore examine the attendant risk factors such as childhood sexual abuse, poverty, low academic attainment and the problems of statutory rape and sexual misconduct against minors.
Studies reveal that one in four girls have experienced sexual victimisation by the age of 17 years, and the sexual experiences of many adolescent girls are forced and unwanted.
Is the Child Marriage Act closely monitored by social workers for abuses? Or is this legislation just another ‘pie in the sky’ for those minors who continue to be forced into marital relationships for financial gain and/or sexual abuse by older men?
Statistics by UNICEF confirm that in the Caribbean and in Latin America, in 71 per cent of the cases of teen pregnancy, fathers were older than 18 years of age.
Sexual assault and child rape can lead to promiscuous behaviours and sexual risk-taking, by children who are sexually abused. The younger a girl was at the time of her first sexual experience, the more likely it is that she has been abused and raped. In many of these instances, the person is someone the child knows—the neighbour, family friend, uncle, step/father, brother, cousin, religious. Whom did I leave out?
There is always someone who may have knowledge of the incident, like the drug-addicted mother who left her two young girls, nine and seven, by the neighbour when she went a-hunting—Little Miss Nine becoming pregnant at 12 at puberty, neighbour’s wife privy to her husband’s abuse, and little Miss Seven being pimped out by several men when mother couldn’t hustle fast enough.
It is therefore very heartening to read that the bystanders and witnesses to the sexual abuse and rape of a minor will be held accountable and prosecuted, hopefully to the fullest extent of the law —the granny charged over sex abuse cover-up, the relative charged for aiding and abetting in the ‘pimping’ of her cousin and so on.
What has been condoned, aided, ignored, hushed up, kept as a family secret, will no longer be given a ‘slap on the wrist’ by the law, as stated by the Joint Select Committee.
Speak up if you know something! Yes, it has happened to you, and to as many as every other female in this country who has been sexually assaulted, raped and touched inappropriately when we were children, but let us ensure that it does not happen to another child!
The spotlight has to be consistently on the predatory males in this society, who having gotten away with your criminal act for years, even decades! Decrease the number of these offenders, and you decrease the number of teenage pregnancies.
Preventive measures through comprehensive sex education programmes from early childhood and onwards and responsible reporting by the media may halt the continued sexualisation of our girls.
Stay Away! public campaigns must target older men, and prevention programmes directed at poverty reduction and postponing pregnancy, not preventing it. Educate our young girls in families where there is poverty and financial difficulties.
Promote the benefits of education with the promise of jobs to these families. Homes and schools should be safe spaces for every child and adolescent, for protection against all forms of violence, especially of the predatory kind such as child rape and abuse.
Dr Nakhid-Chatoor is a clinical and educational psychologist, and President of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP).