ICPD International Conference on Human Rights

Huis Ter Duin | Noordwijk, Netherlands

Regional meetings, thematic meetings, open working group consultations and the UN General Assembly. The MDGs, the SDGs, ICPD+20. The post-2015 development agenda. Have we become so embroiled in tracking these complex processes and acronyms that we have lost sight of why we do this work in the first place? What are we ultimately trying to achieve?

The purpose of the post-2015 agenda is to create a world worth living in. Can such a world ignore sexuality? Of course not. Many of us here have shown that economic productivity and development are hampered by stigma and discrimination linked to sexuality. But sexual rights are much more than a means to achieve other goals. The sexual rights of every human being are integral to the pursuit of happiness, which is the very purpose of development.

Still, each of us in this room can point to numerous examples of how we, and our friends, families and fellow human beings have suffered because of draconian attitudes surrounding sex, gender, and sexual identity. A woman who loves another woman (or a man who loves another man, for that matter) can go to jail in 76 countries! Very, very young girls are frequently married to much older men they may have never met before! And this cruelty is perpetrated in the name of tradition or religion. Antiquated laws against abortion in many other countries in Latin America and elsewhere remain on the books, gaining support from those who fear that abolishing punishment for sexual activity will lead to promiscuity. This must change, if we are serious about creating a world in which we all want to live.

Every single human being suffers because of the lack of recognition of sexual rights- particularly poor women, gays, lesbians, transgender individuals, sex workers and disempowered people in general. But I’d like to turn our attention today to a large group of people whose sexual rights are violated across cultures, religions and national borders: young people.

Young people—especially young women—face formidable social and psychological barriers to the exercise of a healthy and pleasurable sexuality. And these barriers are deeply rooted in the denial of their sexual rights.

But I am optimistic because there is a growing realization among governments and donors that we cannot afford to neglect youth sexual and reproductive health and rights. The consequences are well documented and dire: five million girls under the age of 15 married each year! 2,400 young people newly infected with HIV each day! In 2002 alone, an estimated 150 million girls under the age of 18 experienced sexual violence. 6.1 million unintended pregnancies occur among adolescents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean each year!

While critical discussions on inequality in access to sexual and reproductive health and rights are taking place, the huge inequality among age groups is often overlooked. One of the most blatant indicators of age inequality is the unmet need for contraception among adolescents, which is more than twice that of married women.

In recent years, we have begun to see some progress on this front. In 2012, in the UN Commission on Population and Development, member states issued a landmark resolution on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights. They affirmed the right of young people to access quality youth-friendly SRHR services and comprehensive sexuality education, and to decide on matters related to their sexuality and health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. This agreement was historic in its recognition of young people as agents of their own sexuality.

The increasing prominence of youth sexual rights in global fora also reflects the growing political participation of a large and interconnected generation of articulate activists. Young people have been the protagonists in the global call for an end to inequality and injustice, during the Arab Spring and, most recently, in my native Brazil. Equally notable was the 2012 Bali Youth Declaration, a vision for global development created by 3,000 youth who traveled to the meeting or participated virtually. Their agreement upholds the sexual and reproductive rights of all young people with clear language on key populations such as young women, sex workers, LGBT youth, trans people and indigenous youth.

What has worked and what do we need to do to address the new realities? We have accumulated experience that shows how to respect and protect youth sexual rights on the ground. These are four key areas where significant investment is needed:

The first area is the repeal of outdated laws and the creation of new policy and laws. Last year, in Peru, a coalition of NGOs, including IPPF member association INPPARES, Women’s Link Worldwide and others, obtained a major victory for youth health and rights when the Constitutional Court overturned a law that criminalized all sexual activity before age 18 regardless of consent.

This 2006 law left medical providers unclear of the types of care they could offer to adolescents, and left young people reluctant to seek the services they needed due to fear of punishment. As a result, rates of teen pregnancy and HIV infections surged. Ultimately, it was the advocacy of youth that overturned this antiquated law. More than 50 youth groups across the country gathered the signatures needed to challenge it. This victory demonstrated that youth too can have a voice; that they have the right to participate in the political sphere: and most importantly, that they can inspire change.

The second key area of investment is in the provision of youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services. All young people, including LGBT, poor and disabled youth, have the right to quality services. NGOs in different parts of the world have created health care settings where youth feel comfortable, where their needs are met and they are not judged. They engage community educators that help young people find and access these services, and also work to change the stigma and discrimination young people face in their communities. This requires training and capacity building for providers to protect the rights of youth, including their right to confidentiality and autonomy. Data shows that when health services are designed with youth in mind, they will come to demand contraception and HIV testing. A year after IPPF’s member association in El Salvador underwent an extensive training on youth needs and rights, the number of services they provided to youth increased by 95%.

The right to information and education is the third area where significant investment is needed to help young people form healthy, consensual and pleasurable sexual relationships. And when comprehensive sexuality education is accessible, young people gain awareness and become the best defenders of their own sexual rights. Luckily, we have excellent tools- such as the It’s All One Curriculum guidelines for quality, rights-based sex education programs. With UNESCO, IPPF will soon release a new tool to aid both governments and NGOs in assessing sexuality education. This is already helping in holding governments accountable to commitments—such as the 2008 Ministerial Declaration “Preventing through Education” in Latin America and the Caribbean—that promises comprehensive sexuality education programs to all. But we must be impatient. Cairo +20 provides an excellent opportunity to do for sex education what Cairo did for reproductive rights.

Finally, the fourth critical area of action is dismantling harmful and deeply- entrenched gender norms and discrimination through popular media and local campaigns. In Colombia, Profamilia instituted an innovative campaign to empower young women to claim their sexual and reproductive rights. Through radio spots and print ads that featured popular young actors, the campaign had one overarching message to young women: carry a condom and take charge of your health. The campaign was complemented by discussions in communities and schools about the gender norms that made young women unable assert their autonomy, talk openly about sex and negotiate condom use with their partners.

The post-2015 framework must invest in local initiatives and campaigns such as these that treat young empower young people to be the subjects—rather than the objects—of development. And it must eradicate the obstacles that keep young people from exercising their human rights, including their right to health. If we do not secure the rights of the largest generation ever of young people—and create accountability mechanisms that hold governments responsible—sustainable development will be impossible.

Now is the time. We have the opportunity to create a different kind of world. We can create a world where young people are able to exercise their sexuality in an autonomous and pleasurable way. We can create a world where young people are heard, a world where every single person counts. Most importantly, we can create a world free of discrimination, inequality and violence, a world where people want to live. Isn’t this, after all, the ultimate goal of development?

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