Maria Liberia-PetersMaria Liberia-Peters

My home island of Curaçao, a beautiful small dot in the Caribbean, has always had a very busy international harbor. Prostitution became legal there following World War II, and the government gave permission to set up a brothel called "Campo Alegre" in order to regulate visiting sailors' favorite form of rest and recreation. When I became the first Public Health Commissioner on the Curaçao Island Council in 1975, part of my first assignment was to keep Campo Alegre's sex workers healthy. This was my introduction to the moral side of political life.

Coming from a Roman Catholic background, I believe that human beings are God’s greatest creation and that we are each called upon to take care of the generation that is entrusted to us.

As Public Health Commissioner, I was also responsible for a medical station at Campo Alegre with a full-time doctor and nurses to give each arriving sex worker a full physical examination and to monitor all of her health needs during her stay. This included not only medication for things like the flu or headaches but also contraception and basic reproductive care.

Legal sex work at that time was restricted to foreigners. This was considered enlightened policy then, before today's awareness of possible trafficking and exploitation of girls and women. While the aim was to protect the men from disease and the local women from violence, we also wanted to protect the sex workers' rights to remain informed and healthy enough to become mothers some day if they so chose, and to bear healthy children. Even so, the sex workers were often viewed as outcasts.

Coming from a Roman Catholic background, I believe that human beings are God's greatest creation and that we are each called upon to take care of the generation that is entrusted to us. So I honed my political skills in conversations with my neighbors, defending the rights of all women to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care. The belief that this should be the fundamental human right of all women has guided my life ever since.

I actually hadn't planned to go into politics at all. My father was a construction worker and my mother ran a small grocery store in our poor Curaçao neighborhood. She got up at 4:30a.m. to cook my father's meal he would take to work for lunch and to bake bread and cupcakes in our kitchen. My sister Iris and I then sold them door-to-door after completing our homework and on weekends. We also worked in the store after school. My parents told us working hard was the only way to progress in life, and that we could do anything we wanted, but that no work was shameful if our conscience was clear. That value certainly guided my efforts to protect sex workers as public health commissioner, but it applied equally to my life in politics, which can also be a morally delicate business at times.

After college I worked as a kindergarten teacher. But at a certain moment, an educator who is an ethical and caring person must become the eyes and ears and feet of those who cannot see, hear or walk. So I started parents' groups to make parents more aware of their responsibility as parents and to press for government help for disabled and poor children, because I saw that politics was the only way to make a real difference for them. That is also true for providing women with comprehensive health care.

This proved challenging, as funding for economic development is often given higher priority than for preventive health programs. Investments in reproductive health and healthcare for youth, for instance, are simply not as visible and measurable as infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. During budget debates, I recall telling my fellow commissioners that if we didn't make the right decisions to keep women and their families healthy, putting money into economic growth would be like pouring water into a basket. We would then have to use the income from future business taxes to repair the health and social damage of our earlier, short-sighted decisions.

Early in my career, four other mothers and I formed "Teen House Foundation" to make young boys and girls, ages 13 to 19, aware of their potential and their responsibilities to each other. And I worked with Planned Parenthood to ensure that girls and women receiving public assistance also received reproductive health care. Too often young women don't see that they have a right to define a successful life in any way they choose. For many it will be marriage and children, but I tell them that a boyfriend's wish to be a father is not enough reason for them to become mothers.

My focus in the years that followed, even during my two terms as prime minister, has been to help create options for young women's lives beyond childbearing, for the planet will soon be theirs to use as they see fit. This isn't easy on a small tropical island with few resources beyond its beauty and strategic location and the energy of its people. I have 2 grandchildren and know what possible difficulties they may face and therefore I want to do whatever I can to create opportunities for their future success in life.

As human beings, we are the most privileged creatures on earth, and that seems to me to obligate us to responsibly care for each other. Nothing else is as important as that, and nothing else will create the health and prosperity we all desire for our children and generations to come.

Maria Liberia-Peters, an educator and Member of Parliament in Curaçao (formerly the Netherlands Antilles), served as prime minister there from 1984 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 1994.