Celine Mayeko-Coklee may have been the youngest delegate at the United Nations (UN) High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development 2017, at the UN Headquarters in New York, but she was certainly a force to be reckoned with delivering a solid presentation and representing the country well.

During the forum, Mayeko-Coklee, a member of the St. Maarten AIDS Foundation Youth Chapter, delivered a pointed presentation that focussed on teen pregnancy in St. Maarten, what initiatives are being planned to ensure that these numbers stay low; the measures in place to care for teens who become pregnant, and what is still lacking. Mayeko-Coklee told the forum that over the past five years, St. Maarten has noticed a drop in teen pregnancies.

She said although the numbers are not necessarily where the country wants it to be, the drop in numbers can be attributed to programmes such as Girl Power and Real Talk, which equips teens with information about safe sexual and reproductive health, rather than programmes that focussed solely on abstinence. “In the near future, we hope to improve educational workshops like these to continue to prevent teenage pregnancies. However, our main focus lies in helping those who do find themselves pregnant with knowing their rights, including their right to education among a plethora of other rights that have been put in place to protect teenage parents, as well as to provide them with the mental, physical and medical support they need to have a healthy pregnancy and to raise a child in a secure environment,” the teenager said.

“St. Maarten has made plans to introduce support groups in the near future for pregnant teenagers and parents to attend that will provide them with a safe environment to ask questions and receive advice on lives as teenage parents. In addition to these workshops, St. Maarten has recently taken steps towards involving fathers of children born to teen mothers in the lives of their children by promoting the placement of the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate. This allows us to collect data on fathers and evaluate trends pertaining to the males involved.” She said legalising abortion is a major hurdle as it relates to the future of teen pregnancy. She said while this practice is not legal, it is still being carried out in ways that are harmful to the mother and her foetus.

Legalising abortion will not necessarily mean an increase in teenage pregnancies, but it will mean that the women who choose to end their pregnancies will be able to do so in a regulated setting. The Forum was held from July 10-19 and it included a three-day ministerial meeting which Prime Minister William Marlin attended. One of Mayeko-Coklee’s mentors at St. Maarten AIDS Foundation recommended her for the forum, due to her passion for being a voice of the youth. She had co-chaired a teen discussion in October 2016 and therefore had “a decent background on the topic”. She had also attended the Harvard Model United Nations Conference.

Once selected, the St. Maarten teen prepared early. “I already had the background information on teenage pregnancy because of my work from the AIDS Foundation and I worked very closely with a very kind and patient social worker who gave me a large stack of documents the week before to sift through so that I would be adequately prepared to answer any questions thrown at me. Although I prepared sufficiently before the event, I was given new and shorter time constraints on my speech so I was a little worried I would mess up what I had worked so hard on, but I am happy that I managed to get all of my points out in a coherent manner.” She decided to take on the challenge of representing St. Maarten because she is passionate about being a positive role model. Mayeko-Coklee did not realise at first that she was the youngest participant. “Initially, I was under the impression that I was speaking at a conference with other youth my age. It wasn’t until I introduced myself to a handful of people that I realised that I might have been the youngest person there.

Once again, it felt like such an honour to have been treated with the same respect as those who were older and had far more experience than I had. I even attended an event where the Ambassador of the Netherlands in New York asked me personally if I would be attending another forum later on this year and it made me even more proud to know that I had made such an impression on him.” While being the youngest delegate was an honour, it also had its downsides. “The only downfall of being the youngest person there was standing in line for an hour for a United Nations access pass and being told that I was too young to have one of my own. Once I was in the building with my chaperone, all of the security guards were like ‘Who are you?’ ‘Who let you in?’ And I was like ‘Are you kidding me? I’m a speaker!’ I just thought it was funny.” The event she spoke at focussed on teen pregnancies and was hosted by the Dutch delegation. “I was asked to speak in a room of maybe 40 people alongside some new friends from Ethiopia, Kenya and the Netherlands… At the side event that I spoke at, two young ladies from Kenya, one gentleman from Ethiopia and myself discussed the situation of teenage pregnancies in all of our countries. It was very interesting to hear their take on the subject because it really opened my eyes to the situation globally. For example, we always hear about stories of young girls being kidnapped and turned into child brides, but we never really do anything about it because it seems so far away; but for these speakers, it is a lot more personal. They shared with me the reality of life in their countries… that sometimes a young girl would be walking down the street and before you know it, she is married to someone four or even in some cases six times her age.”

She said the main highlight of her trip was being at the UN Headquarters since it was always a dream of hers. She said the trip opened her eyes to the reality of situations in some nations. “For example, for the first time ever, I was not passively reading an article about the situation of teenage pregnancy in Ethiopia, but I was sitting at lunch with two girls, who explained to me their first-hand encounters with situations in which girls will escape child marriages, or of people they know that have been abducted and married off to older men.”

She plans to present the information she gathered at the forum to the St. Maarten AIDS Foundation youth wing. Mayeko-Coklee, who’s in her final year at Learning Unlimited, plans to study biology as a form of pre-medicine in Canada, after high school. She aspires to become a medical doctor specialising in children. “I would love to somehow intertwine this career with the United Nations and work with refugees and people who need medical attention around the world. This does sound like a stretch as far as career paths go, but this is something I am so passionate about and I will strive for this until I have done everything possible to get to that point.”

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