The peoples’ movements: demographic change and women’s rights in the Caribbean

04 Oct 2019


Statement by Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director [as prepared for delivery]


Good evening! It is a pleasure for me to address you on this occasion of the 33rd Dr. Eric Williams Memorial Lecture. I thank the Central Bank and all concerned for the honour of this invitation.

I greet you in peace – the noble mission of the United Nations.

Peace is also our fervent wish at UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, for the women, young people and communities we serve in more than 150 countries, including in the Caribbean.

Peace, dignity, equality, social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom:  principles set out in the 1945 preamble of the United Nations Charter and concerns also of the vital present-day Caribbean community.

In his extraordinary political memoir Inward Hunger, Dr. Williams describes the issues he was addressing in his lectures and cottage meetings around the time of the founding of the Peoples National Movement in 1956. He wrote, “One of my favourite topics was ‘the place of women in Caribbean Society.’” Six decades later, women’s place remains a topic of import.

I lead UNFPA, which is the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. Our mission is, in short, to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. In addressing sexual and reproductive health and population, we promote health, human rights, human fulfillment, and societies that are stable and prosperous. All in keeping with the aims of sustainable development.

In pursuing this mission, we deal with issues of sexuality and gender; conception and childbirth; family health; puberty and adolescence; aging and mortality. In short, the cycle of life.

This means that we find ourselves dealing largely (though not exclusively) with “the place of women.” Because gender equality lifts up everybody, of course, including men, too.

In each of the countries in which we work around the world, it is always necessary to understand and appreciate the particularities. In this community of island and coastal nations we call the Caribbean, one observes a population that is the consequence of many movements.

The story I’m about to tell you is a tale in three movements.

The first is a story of population, of displacement, of migration, of fertility: the age-old cycle of life and death.

The second movement is the movement of a person – from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, hopefully to happy healthy old age. That person could be a teenage girl in the Caribbean today. You may be interested in learning about her movements.

Thirdly, when we speak of movements, social movements, the Caribbean has contributed to, been affected by, and even now is fashioning a story about the power that peoples’ movements can bring to the enterprise of peace, dignity, equality, and freedom.


[1st Movement]

To begin: I speak with you as a Caribbean person, born in Panama with our Caribbean coast. Some of my ancestors hailed from Jamaica and St. Lucia. They were part of the movement of people who built the Panama Canal. My son is a Dominican, and I’ve played mas in Trinidad in many a carnival past.

The history of the people of the Caribbean is a history of sea-faring Amerindians, one of trade winds and the Middle Passage: the movement of millions of Africans across the Atlantic and into enslavement. It is a history of indenture, the movement of millions of East Indians into years-long bondage, working towards an impoverished freedom. Add in economic migrants from Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East, who arrived free, if penniless. These and other movements of peoples have created a Caribbean community of great diversity, and this diversity can be a great strength. Vibrant new cultures have been created. But the upheaval and disruption inherent to this process tended towards a culture of unsettledness. Under colonialism, the model of the “stable nuclear family” was never intended here, nor even permitted. Notwithstanding the many Caribbean people who made something out of nothing and have developed stable families and communities, the culture of unsettledness has lingered, with consequences right up to today.

In the Caribbean, inevitably, other movements are forced by weather events. From the earliest recorded history, hurricanes have blown through these islands. Buildings destroyed, people left homeless, water and food supplies becoming precarious. This inevitably disrupts communities and families, and forces people to leave one place and go to another.

Imagine what it must be like, in the wake of one of these powerful storms, for someone to have hunkered down in fear, to face the tragedy of a home damaged, personal belongings lost.

I ask you to imagine further: Of course, in any community at any time, there are women who are pregnant, women who will imminently give birth. Imagine their circumstances, when a hurricane blows through, and there they are without a home, no assurance of transport to the hospital, even if the health clinic is still standing.

What happens when the baby is ready to come?

UNFPA works closely with partners to ensure that sexual and reproductive health is integrated properly into emergency response. We deploy dignity kits, which could be a simple bucket containing a toothbrush, soap and products for menstrual hygiene. Our UNFPA health personnel, counselors and advisers support vulnerable populations, working to ensure that the needs of women and young people will be prioritized through both the emergency and the reconstruction phases.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas reminds us of the vulnerability and fragility of the Caribbean Island states to the impact of climate-related disaster. Previously, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria displaced an estimated 3 million people in 16 countries and territories. And now, Tropical Storm Karen affected Trinidad and Tobago, with farmers losing in the millions of dollars.

UNFPA humanitarian advisers deployed quickly to the Bahamas – I’m told we were the first UN team on the ground in support of our gender affairs government partners.

In the aftermath of Dorian, we are helping to strengthen the capacity of the Bahamian Government. Our nurses and doctors are providing contraception that women depend on because very few will want to conceive under the circumstance. Our social workers and counselors are being called upon for clinical management of sexual assault, which sadly occurs more often during humanitarian crises.

These emergencies indeed are becoming more frequent and more severe as the effects of climate change accelerate. The Caribbean and other small island developing states are, in a sense, the canaries in the coalmine of global climate change. As observed by Prime Minister Rowley and others speaking eloquently at the United Nations General Assembly last week, in the absence of urgent climate action at the global level, the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, represent an existential threat to the region. The sad reality is, that it is the people living in the poorest countries, who contribute the least to global carbon emissions, who will likely bear the brunt of climate change most intensely. Moreover, they have the least capacity to adapt.

That is why multilateralism, and institutions like the United Nations and CARICOM, remain so crucial. Some of the world’s toughest challenges, including climate change, are transboundary issues. Tackling them requires a coordinated global response. It will take all of us – countries large and small, from the global South and North, governments, international organizations, civil society and the private sector – working together to conquer these issues.

We see the resilience in the Bahamas. We saw it right here in Trinidad and Tobago with your quick response to Tropical Storm Karen.  UNFPA commends Caribbean governments for the remarkable job they are doing with response. Efforts are already moving from relief to recovery, and to building back better.

The shelters are only to sleep. In the day, displaced people go back to rebuild. The United Nations is there to help; however, it is local people in communities who are leading the way.

In the Bahamas, you might know that many of those who need shelter are Haitian migrants. Not only are there challenges of language and culture, since many of those hardest hit in Abaco are undocumented, fear of deportation is keeping them from seeking assistance, thwarting our efforts to reach the most vulnerable.

The crisis in Venezuela is also posing challenges for the region. Given the small size and limited absorptive capacity of some concerned countries, there has been considerable impact on host communities. Trinidad and Tobago has accepted more Venezuelans per capita than any other country. It is very important to acknowledge the tremendous efforts being made by governments across this region to grapple with the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants, while seeing the human face of the crisis and always striving for solutions. 

Beyond the literal physical movements of people across borders and seas, meaning immigration and out-migration, population dynamics are determined by factors of fertility and mortality.

Mortality has declined in this region and around the world in recent decades.  Today, average life expectancy in the region stands at over 75 years. A signal achievement, made possible by medical advances and improvements in public health and hygiene.

In the Caribbean, people are living longer while there’s a concomitant reduction in maternal and child mortality. At the same time, we must recognize gender disparities in an aging population. Women tend to carry the burden of care. Women, having been paid less over their working lives, have less savings – and usually no pension.

That caveat aside, the medical advances in the Caribbean are real. Members of the Caribbean pantheon made that possible. Sir George Alleyne, renowned for his service to the public good and his leadership in global public health and academia. The late Dr. Sir Prince Ramsey, to whom I had the honour of presenting the United Nations Population Award last year, for his pioneering role on HIV and AIDS in the Caribbean. Dr. Courtney Bartholomew, who diagnosed the first case of AIDS in the English-speaking Caribbean. Through their contributions, along with those of Angela Cropper and many others too numerous to mention – the Caribbean has made its mark on health and well-being here and around the world.

Now, let’s look at fertility, another determinant of demographic change. We note that Caribbean women now tend to have about two live births over their lifespan, in some places below the level of replacement for the first time ever.

Falling fertility and negative migration balances, due to high emigration, point to diminishing population growth beginning around 2059, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Accelerated population ageing, the effect of the so-called “brain drain” and other demographic factors present challenges for Caribbean societies and others around the world.

Addressing these issues in a systematic manner requires government and civil society institutions that can continuously adapt and evolve to meet challenges as they emerge.

Population policy, informed by accurate and timely evidence, plays a critical role in human development. What do I mean by this?

We need look no further than Trinidad and Tobago. Since independence in 1962, the country has been engaged in the development of explicit and implicit national and sectoral population policies to drive economic and social development. Today, it is strategically positioned to move forward with an integrated rights-based approach to sustainable development.

Through the national provision of family planning services, basic health care and education, Trinidad and Tobago’s socio-demographic and economic outlook has improved significantly over time.  This has been combined with support to addressing maternal mortality, which has substantially decreased over the past three years.

The implementation of its population policy with the establishment of a national population council will allow the Government to examine population dynamics and better position itself to address opportunities and challenges posed by migration, declining fertility rates and its demographic transition.

As a key leader and influencer in the region, Trinidad and Tobago has the opportunity to impact not only its own development but that of the larger Caribbean. 

Indeed, it is already doing so. Through the Ministry of Planning and Development, the Government is supporting other countries to conduct population situation analysis and to have structures in place to analyze population dynamics and inform policy. 

The 2020 Census will document some of the recent demographic shifts due to the increase in intra-regional migration, which continues to shape the contours of the Caribbean.


[2nd Movement]

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,

Women, and in particular adolescent girls, have been key drivers of development in every region. The vulnerabilities they confront, speak to the vulnerabilities of the region as a whole, which brings me to my second movement – rites of passage from childhood into old age.

Years ago, a young boy helped his mother make bread and cakes and sold them on the streets of Port of Spain. He was the first-born of twelve children, and was enlisted to help augment the meager family income, as he described it in a memoir years later, because of the “fundamental family problem – the steady and inexorable disproportion between population and resources.”

That young boy was Dr. Eric Williams. His book Inward Hunger begins with his early life in Trinidad in the years following his birth in 1911. In retrospect Williams is very clear on the conditions that caused his family’s struggles. He wrote:

“The failure to control births meant an increasing inability to provide for the children after birth.”

He was sorrowful about the toll that this continual succession of births took upon his mother. In the effort to economize, “Medical expenses . . . could be curtailed . . . except in the case of my mother. The midwife, for example, could not be dispensed with. Nor could one ignore the effects of repeated childbirths on her health. She became prematurely old, fat, and querulous, a constant victim of headaches.”

The consequences of uncontrolled fertility, in Williams’ very personal experience, extended not only to the immediate privations of food and shelter. It affected his health, notwithstanding his position as the favoured child of the family. After a serious fall in his youth playing football, there was no doctor because of the expense. Years later, after consulting about his hearing loss, he wrote, “I have grown more and more convinced that that fall had something to do with the deterioration of my hearing. Not that I regret it – a hearing aid is a powerful weapon against an Opposition in Parliament; one can always turn it off.”

It makes a good punch-line. Yet the consequences of uncontrolled fertility and lack of choice are no joke. We do not wish poverty, or deafness, upon anyone.

The anecdotes that Williams tells illuminate the life challenges, the choices and the lack of choices, and the consequences, that faced his mother, and that face any girl growing into womanhood.

As I speak, somewhere along the coast of this beautiful archipelago, but it could be anywhere, really, since it will happen 20,000 times today, a girl sits terrified and alone. For weeks, she has felt tired, mildly nauseous, slightly off. And now, her cycle is late. Her much older boy – in effect, man – friend had told her, don’t worry. That he loved her. Why let a condom get in the way?

Today, she learns why…. She’s pregnant . . . she’s 15.

In a few months she’ll likely be tossed out of school. Her prospects of resuming her education, dim. No one will ask questions of the boy nor eject him from school. Her opportunities to find decent work and fulfill her potential, diminished. Her future, uncertain. Her boyfriend, nowhere to be found.

Every year around the world more than 7 million babies are born to girls who are children themselves. This is a global issue.

Yet Latin America and the Caribbean must face up to having the second highest adolescent pregnancy rate in the world, after Africa, and with major inequities between and within countries. Girls from families in the lower wealth quintile, with their lower levels of education, or from indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, are disproportionately affected by teenage pregnancy. And we are aware that in places like Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, these issues also face poor girls of East Indian descent. There’s a rising trend of pregnancies in girls younger than age 15. That is also highly concerning.

Are you as shocked as I am that complications from pregnancy and childbirth are “the” leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide? This contributes to the high maternal mortality figures we see in the region. And, globally, fully a third of all new HIV infections now occur among young people aged 15 to 25.

By now, research has shown that the flip side of this equation is that investments in the health and rights of women and girls offer countries among the best returns on investment, and the best chance of preparing girls to succeed as they move into their womanhood.  

It is now widely recognized that the right to sexual and reproductive health, the right to autonomy over one’s body and fertility, is central to women’s empowerment and gender equality. As such, it is a cornerstone of the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In 2015, the world made an ambitious pledge to leave no one behind and the SDGs commit to reaching those furthest behind first. No small task, with constant reminders of how far we still have to go.

The health, well-being and development of the adolescent girl lies at the heart of three transformative aims that we at UNFPA set our sights upon achieving by the year 2030 – our three zeroes to change societal dynamics:

  • Zero unmet need for family planning;
  • Zero preventable maternal deaths; and
  • Zero gender-based violence and harmful practices, including early and forced marriages and female genital mutilation.

High-quality data will help us zero in on where needs are greatest and identify those who are furthest behind. The fact is, we often know the least about those we need most to reach, including the youngest adolescent girls.

What we do know is troubling.

Every minute – 23 under-age girls are married around the world. Many of these marriages are forced or coerced. Even where child marriage is outlawed, girls often have little or no option: poverty, tradition, culture, religion, and custom work against them. Laws on the books go unenforced. Her rights and choices – ignored! — unprotected!

Choice is about knowing how your own body functions. It’s about your own bodily integrity – having the power and means to say no or to say yes, to make your own decisions about whether and whom to marry, and whether, when, with whom, and how often to have your children.

That power affects other choices in life. It’s about having the power and means to seek care during pregnancy and childbirth and to be sure that you will receive quality care once you reach the health facility. Ultimately, it is about life and death.

Will a girl have a choice over what happens to her own body?

I’m willing to break this taboo topic: at least 15 million teenage girls worldwide have been forced into sex – often by partners, relatives or acquaintances – yet only 1 in 100 will seek help.

Nearly a third of older teenage girls aged 15–19 cohabiting have experienced violence at the hands of their partners. We all must protect her from physical trauma, forced sexual encounters, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortion, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

These violence problems are exacerbated when disaster strikes. Without the usual order of family and community, girls and women will be at increased risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence and trafficking.

Even in times of stability, too many young people face barriers that keep them from accessing the sexual and reproductive health services and accurate information that are so fundamental to their health and future prospects. They face stigma from their families, from the neighbor next door, and too often from health practitioners who are supposed to be there to help.

They face laws and policies requiring parental consent to access medical services and treatment.  Laws that often deter them from even inquiring about sexual and reproductive health services.  This is only compounded by mandatory reporting requirements that leave them reasonably fearful of punitive actions from their parents and other authority figures or fearful of being left in the hands of those who are abusing them.

These requirements also make health care providers reluctant to provide information and services to minors. The result: these young people are more vulnerable to unintended pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

In many countries, adolescents find themselves in a catch-22 whereby the law says they can consent to sexual activity at 16 (or even 15), but cannot access sexual and reproductive health services without parental consent until they are 18. In essence, what we are telling them is that they are old enough to have sex, but too young to have access to the health services and information to protect themselves. This defies logic and it hurts young people, especially girls. It hurts their families, communities and countries as well.

And everywhere, when an unintended pregnancy occurs, it’s still the girl who gets shamed and blamed.

Millions of adolescent girls around the world pay a high price every day for our inability, collectively as parents, teachers, health workers, and as a society in our communities, to speak openly and truthfully about all aspects of girls’ and women’s health.

The taboos, the silence, the rumors and misinformation—all of this puts girls and women at risk: their health, their education, their future. And most affected are those left furthest behind: the poor, people with disabilities, rural women and girls, migrants, those living with HIV.

It is said: “If you close your eyes to facts, you learn through accidents.” What’s clear from the statistics on adolescent pregnancy is that — as we adults squeeze our eyes shut and deny an adolescent the facts of life that would protect her — too, too many young people are forced to learn through accidents.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know that when young people have the vital information and services they need, they can make informed and healthy decisions about their bodies, their relationships and their lives.

We face pushback on these issues from many quarters, but the evidence is clear. It decisively shows that comprehensive sexuality education does not lead to earlier sexual activity or riskier sexual behaviour. In fact, it reduces risky behaviours.

At UNFPA, we tailor information to the specific age, context and needs of the young person and engage parents and communities. That is essential. We also know that addressing gender and power issues leads to better health outcomes.

Our goal? Empowering every girl to claim her rights. This means supporting her family and community to accompany her as she moves from girlhood to womanhood.

We believe that the future depends on the investments we make in a 10-year-old girl today. Imagine her, on the cusp of adolescence, standing at a fork in the road as you see here.

If she is able to stay in school, she’s on a path of health and wellbeing throughout her life. Her children will have better health outcomes too. Education, particularly for girls, can break the cycle of poverty.

If, on the other hand, she becomes pregnant while still a child herself…if she is forced to marry or live in a common law union and to drop out of school… she faces a cascade of challenges throughout her life, jeopardizing her health and well-being and that of the next generation.

The key? Reaching girls early. Once girls find themselves on the bottom path, it’s going to make mid-course corrections more difficult and costly.

That is something Tiffiney Tyrrell knows well. We met Tiffiney at a UNFPA-supported empowerment programme for adolescent girls in Guyana. She had her first baby at 15 and her second at 17. The pregnancies disrupted her education and made it difficult to keep a job. Her mother was unsupportive and offered her little help in overcoming these challenges. The devastation of losing her second son before he was two compounded her long list of trials.

The empowerment programme helps steer young mothers like Tiffiney back to education, gives them training to improve their employment prospects and, critically, it teaches them how to prevent further unintended pregnancies.

 “If it were not for this programme I may have found myself being a mother of five or more children, struggling to survive,” Tiffiney told us. She is sure that she would not have been able to go back to school and achieve all that she has so far. She says she’s a better mother, thanks to the programme, and wishes she had had the information she received much earlier. Now, she is doing her part to ensure that other girls do, by travelling around Guyana and the wider Caribbean, sharing her inspiring story.

Yet, even for some who overcome these challenges, stigma lingers. Tonette, now 30, who had her first child at 15, put it this way:

“The reality is that people are very judgmental. Even after all your accomplishments… all the stuff you’ve gone through to pass these hurdles… they are going to remember, ‘Oh, she had a baby when she was 15’.”

Our girls deserve better…don’t they?

It’s time to break the conspiracy of silence and stigma that holds so many girls and young women back.

Investing in adolescents upholds their fundamental human rights. It also makes sound economic sense.

In 2017, The Lancet medical journal published a study showing that improving the physical, mental and sexual health of adolescents, at a cost of about US$4.60 per person per year, would yield more than 10 times as much in benefits to society. By far, the highest returns would accrue in the low-income countries, the same ones with high adolescent mortality rates.

Protecting adolescents’ rights, making sure they stay in school, that they have access to the services and information they need to avoid teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, so that they can reach their full potential – these are smart investments with enormous returns for individuals and societies.

Rights and choices. They can change the world, and we at UNFPA want them for everyone.

While reproductive rights and choices have become a reality for more women than ever, too many still lack the power to make fundamental decisions about their own bodies.

Data from 51 countries around the world show that only 57 per cent of women who are married or in a relationship are able to make their own choices over sexual intercourse with their partner, contraception use and health care.  In some countries, women need their husband’s permission to access contraceptives.

Marginalized groups, in particular young people, unmarried people, people of diverse sexualities, people with disabilities, and those living in poverty, face some of the highest unmet need for sexual and reproductive health services.

We’ve made enormous progress, but we’re not there yet. We have to close these gaps.

What about the boys? And the men?

The reason that I say that the adolescent girl is at the centre of development is that a direct investment in her is an investment in her family and community.

We also need to reach our boys, particularly if we want to change some of the negative masculinities that foster and perpetuate gender-based violence and discrimination.

Boys and men are allies in the struggle – and beneficiaries of it. Gender equality isn’t just a woman’s issue – it benefits everyone. In a gender-equal world of rights and choices for all, we all win. 


[3rd Movement]

This brings me to the final movement I would like to speak about today. A movement that began in the 1960s, like UNFPA, now celebrating our 50th anniversary. A movement that gained impetus at the International Conference on Population and Development, ICPD, in Cairo 25 years ago.

A movement that makes the story I am about to tell possible. 

A young woman steps through the door of the health clinic in her village, confident it is a place where her dignity and rights will be respected. Even though she lives in an impoverished area, the clinic is easy to reach, and she has come for support in planning her family.

A full range of options is available along with all the information she needs to make the right choice—her choice. If she decides to have a child, she will return, knowing that her pregnancy and delivery will be healthy and safe.

She is just one face of the historic movement for rights and choices that has touched and transformed the lives of millions of women and girls. Like them, she is part of a generation more likely than ever before to enjoy reproductive rights.

This was a consensus that governments from around the world, including Caribbean nations, recognized at the ICPD in Cairo.

What inspired all of us present in Cairo, and millions more around the world – and it was life-changing – was the conviction that women and girls belong squarely at the centre of development; that all human beings have the right to decide freely whether, when and with whom to have children; and that everyone must have the means to exercise this right.

It is an extraordinary achievement. Yet it did not happen on its own. For the past 50 years, in every part of the globe, countless individuals, organizations and governments have demonstrated courage and imagination, passion and drive to advance women’s health and rights. These changemakers offer inspiration to us all. And we need it.

It’s simple—people first, with priority attention to women and girls.

What connects all these dots? Issues that are at the core of our work at UNFPA.

Rights, choice, and voice. In particular, women’s and girls’ rights, choices and voices.

Since 1994, there has been a great deal of progress on the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action in Latin America and the Caribbean. We’ve seen improved access to sexual and reproductive health services, and as I mentioned, increased longevity and a reduction in maternal and child mortality.

The world and the region have much to celebrate. Yet, we also see considerable pushback on many of these issues. This is jeopardizing the hard-won gains made thus far for women, girls and young people – and indeed for their countries. Resistance to such core issues as non-discrimination without distinction of any kind, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and comprehensive sexuality education is slowing progress, and undermining efforts to reach those furthest behind. 

The essential role that Caribbean countries and civil society organizations played in the negotiations leading to the approval of the Cairo Programme of Action is widely recognized.  The Caribbean had very strong and powerful delegations that led to the forward looking Cairo Consensus. This also influenced the Millennium Development Goals, the Beijing Platform of Action, and the current SDGs.

In 2013 the region was in the vanguard once again. The approval of the landmark Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development – the most progressive regional outcome of the Cairo+20 review process, established a global gold standard for ICPD implementation. ICPD25 this year finds Latin America and the Caribbean as a region that is moving full speed ahead in implementing this transformative agenda, as a means to accelerate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and also as a way to reduce inequality between groups through a life course approach.

Yet, the implementation of the Montevideo Consensus faces challenges. The fierce opposition of conservative and anti-rights movements is undermining support for gender equality, access to sexual and reproductive health services, youth empowerment and participation, the fight against xenophobia and homophobia, as well as the agenda supporting specific policies for indigenous and Afrodescendant populations and the fight against racism.

The Nairobi Conference on ICPD25 being convened in November by UNFPA, together with the Governments of Kenya and Denmark, is an opportunity for Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean to renew the call for sustainable development and rights for all. It is an opportunity to share lessons learned, forge new partnerships and signal new commitments to bring the promise of Cairo and Montevideo to everyone, leaving no one behind.

We applaud the steadfast commitment of the Caribbean community to empowering women and girls and lifting up young people. We trust you will use the power of your leadership to encourage national commitments to achieve the unfinished agenda of the ICPD and the Sustainable Development Goals on time, by 2030.

We hope you will bring your imagination and ingenuity as the world marches to the Nairobi Summit in November. The same imagination and ingenuity that transformed discarded steel drums into instruments used to make music admired the world over. The imagination and ingenuity that transformed scraps of food into a cuisine enjoyed the world over. The imagination and ingenuity that wove reeds together into watertight baskets – a perfect marriage of beauty and utility.

This is a country and a region on the move. Let us move forward together to Nairobi and beyond. Let us move forward with courage, conviction and commitment.

It’s about rights and choices. And millions of women and girls are counting on all of us to make the right choices.

It’s about freedom and self-determination, principles that Dr. Eric Williams championed, along with the transformative power of education and opportunity. They transformed his life and the trajectory of this great nation. Let’s use these principles to lift up our girls.

And let’s start with a girl’s liberty to have control over her body and to shape her future.

There is power in our movements. In the instance of the Nairobi Summit, together we have done the preparatory work, with civil society here and all around the world. The mandate is embedded within communities who are translating the SDGs into action. Paraphrasing Dona Da-Costa Martinez of the Family Planning Association of Trinidad & Tobago:  The Nairobi Summit will revalidate that we are marching for our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. It is they who are Atlas: they are the bearers of the world. As we march, we are going to stick together, singing one and the same song, about women’s rights, our voices ringing out in beautiful harmony.



You have listened to my story of three movements as it evolved. I have spoken of the movement of peoples to create the modern-day population of the Caribbean.

I also spoke of the movement of a girl into confident womanhood. Once prioritized and properly looked after, she will make her mark and fulfill her potential.

And I told you of my excitement about the lifting up of women’s rights and choices at the upcoming Nairobi Summit, and of UNFPA’s determination to end contraceptive unmet need, to stop unnecessary deaths in childbirth, and to join hands with you – to do our part to stop the senseless violence against women and girls.

As Lloyd Best told it, the limbo was born on ships during the Middle Passage, an allusion to the limited space available onboard and the dim prospects of transcending it. Too many of our girls are stuck in a perpetual limbo, bending down low to get through a space that doesn't exist.

It’s time to end this dance and give them the space they need to flourish.

In essence, this crescendo must resound and reverberate throughout the Caribbean -- the sounds of the ingenuity of the dispossessed.

Make something out of nothing. The limbo space from those ships must not continue.

These are metaphors for our Caribbean resilience. And therein, the power of Beauty to transform no-way into a way forward

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