Two things caught my attention in the national discourse over the last few days. These were the continued discussion about abortion and a woman’s right to choose and the notion that money is needed in order to improve social services in Barbados.
The debate around the issue of abortion, I hope, is persuading policy makers that the spaces where women go to access the service in Barbados need to be ring fenced by solid guidelines and procedures to ensure that woman are not battered about their choice. The discussion has brought to the surface the intent of certain religious based groups to seemingly badger women about their right to choice in matters related to pregnancy.
What always confuses me about the pro-life debate is how the premise of the belief that a baby’s life should be preserved at all costs completely erases the importance of a life that is already established, seen, named.
Pro-lifers have to intentionally conflate a number of separate and clear facts in order to be able to sustain their arguments on the matter of abortion. A major one has to do with the stage at which life starts. Until a baby can survive outside of the womb of the mother, to my mind, the question is not even so much when its life begins but a realization and acceptance that there is a life which must be managed before the baby’s.
Women are not just vessels for reproduction. The health, mental state of the mother and her feelings about her ability to be a mother all must be factored into the equation about what is in the best interest of both the mother and child.
The fact that pro-lifers place the ability of a woman to carry life over her own wellbeing, goals and needs is the sustenance of a patriarchal view of the usefulness of women and their value. Most abortion rights advocates promote early term abortion as the safest and most viable form of the service. There is nothing about a pregnancy up to the twelfth week that makes it viable outside of a woman’s body. Thus, the life I give a premium to in my belief in pro-life is that of an already living, breathing independently viable female human.
Along with greater freedom to access judgement-free abortions, we need a national sexual education programme which gives women of all ages more information about their bodies and how to effectively use contraception. Men and women need to be sensitized about counting menstrual cycles and planning pregnancy. Until this is done, abortions will be the most viable way of mitigating against unwanted pregnancy.
Further, in a society that has high levels of sexual violence against women and girls and where there is no national focus on addressing that issue, how can we seriously seek to demonize abortion services? These are the real social issues that need to be addressed long before we make any woman feel she does not have choices about her body and what she allows to grow or not in it.
The recent call for more money to fix social services issues in Barbados is one that I support in principle. However, I felt as though there was an elephant in the article that, if left unaddressed, could create another governmental black hole when it comes to the taxpayers’ purse.
Based on my interactions with welfare services in Barbados, the major challenge which we seem to have is not a financial one. The major problem seems to be with the deployment and maintenance of the human resource. There is a distinct attitude that seems to obtain in the social services space and until and unless we can create a system that addresses that reality, I do not think that increased sums of money will change the customer experience of our social services.
The social services in Barbados are not structured with a client centered philosophy at the core. To my mind, making the focus of social services the end users for whom those services are provided should be the first focus in reimagining social services in Barbados. These kinds of philosophical changes do more for adjusting the experience of end users than any financial changes.
Take, for example, the current intake desk at the main office of the Welfare Department in Bridgetown. The counter is built in such a way that it is eye level with the client, but the desk on the inside is constructed for the desk officer to sit at. The disparity in the space means clients must use elevated voices to communicate with the desk officer. Many times the information being given can be heard by the rest of the waiting room – we could give the Department more money but that desk has been like that for years and money will not make the officers in charge realize that their clients deserve privacy and dignity.
The Child Care Board does not have a system to ensure that children can offer feedback about their services and their experiences with their officers. We could increase the budget, but how will the increase change the views about children in the wider society generally and in the state agency responsible for their care and protection, specifically?
There are a lot of problems that we throw money at or oversimplify with religious debates in Barbados. It is one of the major reasons why we do not get to the root causes of the structural issues that we have in this society. We are soundly stuck because of it, and until we become ready to face the hard issues head on, the atrophy will continue.
Marsha Hinds is the President of the National Organisation of Women.