Young. Beautiful. Powerful. These were the words to best describe the participants of the Caribbean YWCAs Young Women Leaders Dialogue (YWLD) on violence against women, sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV and AIDS held in Trinidad and Tobago on May 24. Over 15 young women gathered to share the reality of being a woman in the Caribbean today and discuss the role of young women's leadership in addressing the issues young women are faced with.
Guest speaker Crystal Brizan, 29, of ASPIRE, began the YWLD explaining the state of sexual and reproductive health and rights in Trinidad and Tobago. "We don't have cohesive health and family life education in Trinidad and Tobago. The schools that do talk about sex only talk about abstinence, which is well and good, but you can't put it as the only option to young people," said Brizan. "In order to scare young people in to not having sex, some schools show horrendous movies with graphic images. They don't deal with the core issue of prevention."
"Ensuring young women have knowledge of all their sexual and reproductive health and rights is crucial for Caribbean women," believes Brizan. "We must give young women choices. Young women need to know who they are as a person. You need to be confident. You need to have a high self esteem as this is important to negotiate life."
Having choices was a topic of much discussion at the YWLD, with some young women feeling the ABC method (Abstain. Be Faithful. Use condoms) was unrealistic in today's Caribbean society. However others felt it still has a place. "There are some young women who are still choosing to abstain. If there is a message that nobody in the Caribbean is longer abstaining, there is too much pressure on them," said one young woman participant.
The issue of violence against young women was also high on the agenda with many participants raising concern at the apparent acceptance of violence against women in Caribbean culture. "Some young women understand that violence against women is unacceptable, but many others are financially reliant on men who are hitting them," shared a young woman from the YWCA of Guyana. "However, there is also a sense of embarrassment for the young woman. She does not want to admit to friends or family that this happened."
Other participants also raised the idea that many young women in the Caribbean are confused about the concept of power and control in relationships. "When your boyfriend says ' I don't want you to talk to other guys ', they think his jealousy is a form of flattery but that is controlling behaviour and can be very dangerous," said one participant.
When participants reflected on why young women choose to stay in physically and emotionally abusive relationships, there was a sense that the mindset of ' it's better to stay in this relationship, than be alone ' was influencing young women. "Caribbean communities are small. Everybody knows everybody's business so there can be victimisation when a woman may decide to leave an abusive relationship as others in the community will say, ' Why is she leaving? ' It is hard to get a good man these days."
There was also an opportunity at the YWLD to meet with World YWCA President Susan Brennan, World YWCA General Secretary Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda and YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago President Keisha Crushinack and discuss young women's leadership.
For Brennan leadership is "Every time a young woman looks around and says, ' this is not fair, this is not right ' and speaks up about it and gathers support for the issues she sees as important and brings a change to her community.
Although there was only one day to meet exclusively as young women before starting the Caribbean YWCAs Regional Training Institute on May 25, participants developed a range of recommendations to ensure young women's leadership remains a priority for the Caribbean YWCAs that will be shared later in the week.
An intergenerational dialogue will take place throughout the five-day training but for now, the young women of the Caribbean YWCAs feel optimistic about the future. "We believe in the power of young women leaders. We believe because that is who we are, and we know what young women leaders can achieve together," said a young woman of the YWCA of Grenada.