The Unfinished Work of Women’s Human Right 



By Alita H. Singh, Journalist and women’s right activist

When I think of the phrase “Happy Women’s Day” I am drawn back to my childhood and my first reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. How odd you may think that this day women plan for and celebrate makes this woman, me, think of a children’s story. So here is the bit that got me thinking – Alice and Humpty Dumpty, who is balancing on a wall, are enwrapped in conversation:

Alice says: “I mean, what is an un-birthday present?”

Humpty replied: “A present given when it isn’t your birthday, of course.”

Alice considered a little. “I like birthday presents best,” she said at last.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” cried Humpty Dumpty. “How many days are there in a year?”

Three hundred and sixty-five,” said Alice.

“And how many birthdays have you,” he asked.

“One,” said Alice.

So, ladies what about the other 364 days? Aren’t they all women’s day? I don’t know about you, but my vagina doesn’t take a break and suddenly become a focus point only on March 8. It was thrusted upon me when the egg of my mother and the sperm of my father did that dance in the womb. I was born with it and it has kept growing … and growing on me. It made itself very notice on the day of the first blood came. It screamed when the hymen was pierced and it rejoiced after that … again and again.

There is another poignant quote; this time from a real-life woman – Hillary Rodham-Clinton. The year was 1995 and I was 15. My breasts had not yet made an appearance, but looming large was my sense of self and the soapbox I already carried around. Clinton said: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”

Let’s look at what we, women, are confronted with on St. Maarten. The basket of necessities – the list of government price-controlled items – covers some dozen products. So, a woman, let’s make her a mother, with limited financial means can go out and buy all the things she needs to make her family a meal – give or take.

Let’s imagine that mother in a typical mom scenario. She is busy in the kitchen trying to prepare a meal, there a baby screaming in the background as her 11-year-old approaches her: Mom, she says, I got my period. This is a proud and scary moment for a mother, I am sure. That mom as she standing looking at her child feels something warm snaking down her leg. She knows it is a rivulet of red because she couldn’t afford this month to buy sanitary pads. This item, ladies, is NOT price controlled or labelled a basic necessity on St. Maarten. Feminine hygiene products such as sanitary pads are basic necessities on Curacao since 2012.

What would it take to get feminine hygiene products on the list of price-controlled basic necessities? The simplest of procedure. No law change is required. All that is needed is a thinking minister to instruct the Economic Affairs Department to inventorize this item and with the stroke of a pen it can be added. The department can also take the lead in this and conduct the price assessment. There is absolutely no reason why this should remain an imbalance.

By the way, sanitary pads are also not on the hurricane supply list. This is that list we hear about all throughout the hurricane season. That’s how much we are thought of ladies! We better know that a stack of feminine hygiene products is necessary or be in a rather messy situation following a hurricane say one like Irma. What is great about this hurricane supply list is that batteries are prominently placed. Should hurricane stress get you down, you can always pop some batteries into your vibrator and get some release, just not when you have your period. Detergent is not price controlled.

Speaking of Mother Nature’s monthly gift. Many of us may have just walked into a pharmacy to purchased contraceptives. How many of us are aware that by law, a prescription is required for birth control pill? Why bother with what is on the law if we can still get it without a hurdle? I say, what if the hammer of the law crashes down, what then?

The age of consent is set at 16. I can only assume that is why it is called sweet sixteen. At that age a young girl can consent to a man entering her body, but she cannot access, legally, birth control pills. Based on the law books, a minor requires a parent’s consent to access birth control until age 18. Let’s pause here and think about this – a teenage girl can allow a man to thrust into her very self, but she does not have the means to prevent the egg/sperm dance if her chosen male partner does wrap up his man parts. (Just a quick note – contraceptive pills and diabetic medicines are price controlled in Curacao, so we don’t have to go far for examples).

Now, let’s imagine birth control pills or a condom was not used or there was a malfunction, and the result is a pregnancy. What then for the 16-year-old or any other woman for that matter who is not prepared or wants this path. The medical termination of that pregnancy, let’s call it by the taboo name abortion, is not legally possible. I want the phrase “not legal” to be a focal point here. Yes, getting an abortion is as easy as crossing our open border. Abortions are also possibly performed on this side by doctors taking the risk of jail time to ensure women have a choice and control over their own body and life.

By the way, birth control pills are not generally covered by insurance. The only women who have access to birth control via their insurance are those in the civil service due to government’s specific insurance type. So the 65 per cent of the civil service – meaning all women working for government – have this access and 100 per cent of us who don’t work for government better find the cash – limited as it is -or hope the condom doesn’t go kapot!

A mother, single or married, is not by law entitled to unpenalized time off should she need to stay at home with her sick child. She must take a vacation day or call in sick herself. She, of course, runs the risk of losing a day or more pay for missing work due to a sick child. It is in this area banks have shown they are not all Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Most banks, thanks to the work of labour unions, have enshrined in their collective labour agreements access to five “child care” days. This is not common in the private sector.

A bit of equality when it comes to sexual reproductive health law is a woman (if married) requires the consent of her husband before she can tie her tubes to permanently prevent pregnancies. The husband also needs this consent from his wife if he decides to do a vasectomy. Neither of these procedures are done below age 35 to lessen the chance of regret in both parties.

I don’t know if I should classify this as a perk, but in spite of all the sexual reproductive restricts on a woman’s body, she is legally allowed to sell it to a man. The laws regulating prostitution is gender specific, meaning it only allows a woman to sell her body for economic gain. Not a man. So there we go ladies, we are ahead of the men where is really matters – making money in reclining position.

Basic rights are denied to a woman who happen to fall in love with someone of her own sex. Both lesbian partners – women! – cannot access the benefits a heterosexual couple in a civil union can. Mind you, I said “civil union” not marriage. A marriage is performed by an ordained religious person. A civil union is presided over by a government appointed official. Same sex civil unions are not legal on St. Maarten. You don’t choose who you fall in love with, but there are laws determining what that love is worth in social and other benefits.

Here we are at the poignant words of the now retired UN Population Fund Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid who in 2004 said – “We cannot reduce poverty and maternal and child mortality, promote women’s empowerment and equality, reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS and ensure sustainable development, unless reproductive health and rights are given the highest priority and are treated as a basis for achieving the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals].” St. Maarten has signed on to achieving those goals.

Are you a little bit wiser now? I definitely am after the journey I took researching for this speech. And as I stand here, I am reminded of a woman closer to home – retired Ombudsman Nilda Arduin. She closed her ground-breaking tenure by saying: “We have to learn how to finish the job. When I say we, I mean the community and our leaders. We need to tackle our cultural approach. If we have 10 assignments and finish four, we celebrate and forget we still have six more. We have a tendency not to finish what we have to finish.” (Does this sound like Alice being happy with that one gift!)

There have been great improvements on this resilience rock of ours. We can boast of shattering the glass ceiling into confetti with women represented in the highest offices of the land. But are we celebrate when only part of the work is done?

Are we Alice contented with that one birthday gift a year? Or will we heed the call of Ombudsman Arduin – a real life woman – and work diligently, tirelessly, to fix these inequalities by calling vehemently, for changes via our laws?

And think for a moment, if we are denied so many basic freedoms, rights – many we are not even aware of – and if we don’t get ourselves educated, become more aware and take up a fierce Oualichi battle cry, then the only thing we are celebrating on March 8 or for the entire month of March, for that matter, is the fact that we have a vagina. And the only balance we are concerned about is the PH balance of the place author Fabian Badejo describes in his book Fantasies Love-Making Poems – as “a jewel box” with “nectar like wine” – and the only problem we will prevent is a minor yeast infection as we continue to sit in blissful ignorance.

(Singh was the keynote speaker at Fourth Annual Prominent Women’s International Women’s Day Awards Ceremony held on March 19 in Belair Community Centre)