COVID-19 sucking up the oxygen in the room

COVID-19 sucking up the oxygen in the room

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

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It may be a sign of the times. Usually around this time of year when the United Nations International Day of the Girl is celebrated, there is much chatter, at least about the age of consent and how it relates to increasing teenage pregnancy.

On Sunday, the day passed with relatively little noise about the state of the girl child in Jamaica. It is not far-fetched to suggest that COVID-19 is sucking up the oxygen in the room and Jamaicans are, understandably, preoccupied with little else.

That would be a far cry from two years ago when, on International Day of the Girl 2018, we were basking in the joy of the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation receiving the UNESCO Prize for Girls' and Women's Education for its work supporting Jamaican pregnant adolescent girls and mothers to return to the school system and complete their education.

As far back as 2008 the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) found that approximately 18 per cent of children born in Jamaica were attributed to adolescent girls.

Indeed, if COVID-19 is muting the occasion to highlight the situation of girls in Jamaica and the rest of the world, it is doing so while posing even greater dangers to the population of girls and women.

In a more current study, the UN and its partners found that the pandemic could result in 13 million more child marriages and two million more cases of female genital mutilation between now and 2030, beyond the millions already expected to take place. Adolescent pregnancy is on the rise and girls under lockdown and out of school are highly vulnerable to harm at this time.

Highlighting the disproportionate and devastating socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on women and girls globally, UN chief António Guterres has called for a major push to prevent “years, even generations” worth of progress on women's empowerment from being lost to the pandemic.

In Jamaica, we breathe a sigh of relief that child marriages and female genital mutilation are not known features of our cultural practices. But Jamaican girls are bedevilled by sexual predators who wreak havoc on their young bodies…and their future. Many children and adolescents here begin sexual activity at a young age. In a 2016 study, 37 per cent of students aged 13-15 reported already having sexual intercourse. Many also go on to engage in risky sexual practices that endanger their health and well-being.

Adolescent pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual violence are among the most persistent issues affecting the health, social and economic progress and empowerment of young women and girls in Jamaica.

Not only do horrific practices such as genital mutilation, sexual abuse, and violence violate a girl's bodily integrity and autonomy, they steal her confidence and ability to make informed choices about her life, according to UNFPA Executive Director Dr Natalia Kanem in her message marking the International Day of the Girl 2020.

One of the never-ending problems girls of the world have in common is that, too often, their voices are silenced in households, in schools, and in the public sphere, Dr Kanem laments.

We in this space support all efforts to improve the lot of girls, the women of tomorrow, using the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Agenda as our guide, to ensure that no girl is left behind.

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