Heavily pregnant with her seventh child, Beatrice Paul (not her real name) faces unimaginable trials.
Her story is one among many that have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and as Finance Minister Colm Imbert presents the Budget for the next fiscal year today, the answers lie in how he intends to put the pieces of the puzzle together to relieve the sufferings of tens of thousands.
At the age of 31, she has already been through homelessness, sexual abuse, physical battering and rejection from three different men who fathered her children.
Despite being educated and a former student of a prestigious high school, Paul is in a fourth relationship.
But why did Paul find herself in this situation?
In an interview with Guardian Media, Paul said she was sexually molested as a child and knew what it felt to feel inferior, unworthy and unloved.
Her biological mother abandoned her. Paul’s adopted mother died after she got pregnant for her high school sweetheart but that dreamy-eyed relationship did work out as she was abused emotionally and verbally.
“I never grew up with my mother. I had nobody to guide me in my decisions, like how I am doing with my children now,” Paul said.
After her adopted mother died, Paul said she became vulnerable and made a mistake that led to a second pregnancy with another man.
He walked away saying he was not ready to become a father. She was then kicked out of her adopted home.
“Back then I was ready to give up on men. I told myself I will mind my children. I did not want to have anybody else,” she said.
December 2020: Children play on the dirt floor of their home in Woodland.
KRISTIAN DE SILVA
But a relative pressured her into marrying a man to give “security” to her children. That third relationship led to sexual violence and physical abuse.
Just before the pandemic hit, she became pregnant again for someone else.
“You think I wanted to be pregnant. Do you think I wanted to push out a baby every other year? I went to Family Planning but I was allergic to the pill. I started to bleed. I started to get infections from the latex in the condom. My husband told me to end the pregnancy but I am against abortion. I had my baby because I was raised properly and I know that abortion is wrong,” Paul said.
While people reading this may judge her, Paul said in her heart she tries to be a good mother.
“I did not have the guidance. I did not get the help I need to cope with my childhood trauma of being abused. Here I am now, pregnant for the seventh time. I wish the government could put programmes in place for us where the social worker can come to us and help us with options,” she added.
Paul’s story is not uncommon
Paul’s feelings of hopelessness were shared by Karla, a mother of six who told us her husband impregnated her often to keep control of her.
He refused to give her money to travel to the Wednesday afternoon Family Planning meetings at the Debe Health Centre.
“My husband does not want me to go anywhere because he would beat me if another man so much as watches me,” Karla said. She begged the doctors at the San Fernando General Hospital to tie her tubes but they denied her request saying she was too young for this procedure.
Savitri who admitted to being depressed said she has not been able to access any of the assistance grants that were available by the government.
“I have five children, three different fathers. The oldest one, her father gives a little money to mind her but he wouldn’t help with the others. We don’t have internet so I cannot upload any form online. I never pay NIS so I cannot get references. All I can do is go out the road and beg to see if I can get something to feed my children,” Savitri explained.
Dr Ralph Henry
Poverty is extreme says UWI economist
Prominent economist and researcher on employment and poverty, Dr Ralph Henry agrees that since the pandemic started, poverty has become extreme in T&T.
Dr Henry who is Head of the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies said poverty levels are now way beyond what was ever projected.
Asked whether a poverty grid could have been developed in every community to have specific data to assist vulnerable people, Dr Henry said the government has made an effort to assist the people affected by the pandemic.
“There is no way the government on its own with the limited resources can alleviate poverty,” he said.
“It is a major challenge because there is a lot of corruption and people allegedly in the Ministry have taken the money and presumably given it out to people who are not deserving. There are community leaders who put themselves forward as heads of community groups, among other problems,” he said.
Dr Henry said to avoid wastage of resources, poverty data must be verified and shared with other agencies across the board so there is no duplication of the resources.
“Surveys are expensive but you have to find some mechanism that is efficient and effective in reaching most people. Large numbers fall below the poverty line. You have information that you can draw from, for example, households with children, who are registered in a school. There must be a record from inoculation. There is some record that we can draw from that allows us to start documenting people,” he said.
He noted that long ago, there were social workers in communities doing poverty means tests, the data of which was utilized by government agencies.
Some recommendations to alleviate poverty
1- Hire more social workers to go into communities to do a means test on families.
2- Develop a poverty grid, documenting poor families utilising existing data from schools, health centres and government agencies.
3- Allocate resources based on the means test. Put systems in place to ensure the resources reach the right people.
APRIL 2018: A father with his child at their Tabaquite home.
KRISTIAN DE SILVA
Family planning breakdowns
But the secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of T&T (APTT) Dr Varma Deyalsingh said education can reduce poverty levels. He said while family planning outreach programmes have been successful, there are some setbacks.
“There are reasons for a lack of contraceptive use. Due to some breakdowns in public health education, we still don’t reach some to teach family planning.
“There are also cultural and religious biases, health concerns and even scepticism about the motives of the government in controlling family size,” Deyalsingh said.
He added, “Some may have health clinics located far from their homes and may not have means to travel to clinics. Then patriarchal control exists where men make the decisions for their wives whether or not to use contraception.”
He noted that a girl who starts her childbearing years earlier is likely to have more kids and less likely to finish school.
“Thankfully government outlawed child marriages and we now are duty-bound to report sexual activity in those under 18 years. We were beginning to see fewer pregnancies, fertility rates were also decreasing.
However, the poorer persons are likely to have larger families which further stretches their finances as well as be less educated which compounds the issue,” he said.
Deyalsingh said under the School Feeding Programme, poor children got accustomed to getting meals but COVID -19 compromised this.
He says dead-beat fathers must be made to pay child support.
“High school boys should be coached in gender equality and sharing childcare responsibilities later on. Family planning should be a priority in the HLFE courses. We must coach teens to understand their rights, delaying sex, the legal age of consent and the importance of education because increasing a girls education decreases fertility rates,” he said.
APRIL 2018: A mother sweeps her home in Tabaquite while her child rests on a sponge on the floor.
KRISTIAN DE SILVA
Reasons for having large families
-Social reputation. Some view children as blessings and a sign they are a real woman or to show they can ‘have a man’.
-As a safety net in old age. Having more kids may provide an extra sense of security for parents, with the hope that one day, one or more children may be successful enough to take care of you. Children and siblings are your support system. They have your back when the world is against you. They watch out for you.
Cultural acceptance: -Some poor unmarried women have kids because they want them. They grew up in a home where their mother and grandmother had children with different men and it is acceptable.
The problem is the instability of the children’s lives as they live through all these different relationships.
The Thrill:- For some having a baby is a thrill. Being a young mother makes them feel special and equates this to being a successful adult when all other paths are blocked. Some want another small human to cuddle and love and completely depend on them.
Love and financial security
To keep a connection with a partner or a financial stream – Some women think that if they have a child with a man he will stay or maintain a connection either romantic and or financial and if he leaves, she may find another one who can promise her the world and the cycle may be repeated. This is motivated by love, finance or the need to feel they have someone.
Ministry of Social Development plans 2022 Poverty Assessment
When contacted, Minister of Social Development Donna Cox agreed that the pandemic was causing an escalation of poverty, as well as vulnerability among women and girls.
She said the Ministry’s Social Investigation Division has been engaged in the development of a National Poverty Reduction Strategy in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme.
“In fiscal 2022, the Division will be conducting a National Participatory Poverty Assessment that will give the Ministry a better picture of the multidimensional situation of poverty within the country. This information, as well as the data that will emerge from the upcoming Survey of Living Conditions, which will soon be undertaken by the Central Statistical Office, will assist the Ministry in developing plans and programmes towards reducing poverty and improving human and social development,” she said.
Social Development and Services Minister Donna Cox.
She noted that women and girls have become more vulnerable during the pandemic.
“As more women and girls lose their jobs and have fewer funds available to purchase needed resources and services, they may be pressured to engage in unsafe livelihood activities. Moreover, the economic fallout caused by COVID- 19 could further increase the risk of a child, early, and forced marriage for adolescent girls. This may also lead to an increase in early and unwanted pregnancies,” she said.
Although data is still unavailable from the informal sector, Cox said the Ministry has tried to assist by providing relief grants to poor families.
She said 62,739 persons were assisted with the Salary Relief Grant and Food Support of which 36 per cent were female beneficiaries. She explained that the Ministry recognises the importance of addressing self-esteem issues in our young women.
“ A strategic element would also be to target the young men and adult males by addressing the idea of “toxic masculinity” that prevails on a lack of respect for women and permits or supports the action of males seeking out and targeting young females that are searching for love, fulfilment and stability. Additionally, the socializing of our boys must also be taken into consideration,” she added.
October 2020: A mother and her children outside their home in Philippine.
KRISTIAN DE SILVA
Grants Currently Available
Major grants offered by the Ministry include:
Public Assistance Grant (PAG)
Disability Assistance Grant for Adults (DAG) and Disability Assistance Grant for Minors (DAGM)
General Assistance Grant (GAG)
Food Support Grant (FSG) – (long term and Temporary).
Disaster Relief (Flooding)
Special Achievers Grant
National Social Development Programme (NSDP)
Sowing Empowerment through Entrepreneurial Development (SEED) grant.
This suite of grants is provided to persons to support and help them through their challenging financial situations while providing opportunities for individual and family/household empowerment and transformation. The Ministry ensures that persons have access to these grants and services via offices available in 10 regions in Trinidad and 1 in Tobago.