UNITED NATIONS, Apr 26 2013 (IPS) - Ishita Chaudhry spent the past 36 hours listening to U.N. delegates discuss population growth and development. She noticed that on “controversial” topics, such as sexual and reproductive rights, young people’s voices often get lost.
“For us as young people, it’s really not as controversial as it is for governments,” said Chaudhry, a member of the High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), at a press briefing Thursday.
“We know that we need to be empowered to claim our human rights… And we understand that access to sexual, reproductive health and birth services, and comprehensive sexuality education is a key aspect of that empowerment,” she explained.
Joaquim Alberto Chissano, a former president of Mozambique and co-chair of the task force, added, “Fulfilling sexual and (reproductive) health and rights is not only a human right… it also offers solutions to many of today’s global problems.”
Chissano – often credited for ending civil war and strengthening democracy in Mozambique – cited the links between sexual and reproductive health and national progress.
He explained that by promoting sexual and reproductive health, the international community can “fully unleash human potential, energies and talents… to nurture the human capital that countries need to reduce poverty and inequality”.
If sexual and reproductive rights are not addressed, “those who will feel the pinch more are the coming generations”, he warned.
The task force’s work – entitled “Policy Recommendations for the ICPD Beyond 2014: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for All” – reaffirms values established almost twenty years ago in Cairo, where 179 governments gathered to adopt a Programme of Action that placed the human rights of women at the centre of international development goals.
The task force calls on the governments to address Cairo’s “unfinished agenda” by: ensuring sexual and reproductive rights through law; working towards universal access to sexual and reproductive health services; providing sexuality education for all young people; and eliminating violence against women and girls.
It argues that governments should expand access to safe abortion and to services for victims of gender-based violence, and that the international community should adopt a definition of “comprehensive sexuality education”.
The task force’s work will inform U.N. negotiations for a new development framework, to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) post-2015.
According to the task force, the sexual and reproductive health of young women and girls are particularly compromised. It cites that one in three girls in developing countries are married without their consent; 2,400 young people are infected with HIV every day; and up to 50 percent of all sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 16.
Asked if sexual and reproductive rights are often barred by social or cultural norms, Chaudhry – founder of The YP Foundation, a non-profit organisation in India – said, “I come from a country that has a broad representation, both in terms of religion (and) culture. It has a lot of sensitivities.”
She emphasised the importance of providing information and sexuality education to approach such sensitivities. “You’re not telling the young person that they should or shouldn’t do something, you’re giving them access to evidence-based information, which means that they are in the best place to decide (for themselves).”
She said, “Because there’s such a broad lack of understanding… the fear and stigma and discrimination around issues of sex and sexuality therefore remains very high.”
Chaudhry argued that some of the most effective cases in achieving sexual and reproductive rights are when governments invest at community levels in reducing levels of related stigma.
She explained, “One of the biggest misconceptions of sexuality education is that if you provide sexuality education to an adolescent, you’re going to decrease the age of first sex.”
She added, “Once you start breaking the stigma and the silence around issues of sex and sexuality, you find that even parents and religious leaders themselves have questions… They (just) haven’t had anybody else to ask.”
Tarja Halonen, former president of Finland and co-chair of the task force, posed a question of her own: would you want to perpetuate socially rooted injustices, “or would you like to be the founding father or mother with a new way of (doing things)”?
She explained that while it is important to respect traditional values, it is also important to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She emphasised the need to work with experts from schools, health centres and religious communities.
Halonen noted that social stigmas on sexuality are prevalent even in Finland – ranked the second happiest country by the U.N.’s World Happiness Report. These stigmas discourage victims of sexual abuse from seeking the help they need, while providing impunity for perpetrators.
Halonen told IPS, however, that there has been some progress. She shared her experience fighting for sexual and reproductive rights, which started over four decades ago when she was a young lawyer.
“In the late 1960s, when I spoke on behalf of young Finnish students… I said that (students) need more information for these issues,” said Halonen.
“I remembered how they answered me in Parliament. They said, ‘(Students) are in the university in order to study, not to have sex’.”
Despite social stigmas and Parliament’s neglect, Halonen was able organise sexual and reproductive health services and information for the university’s health care centres.
Her national progress for sexual and reproductive rights continued from there.
“We changed the legislation in 1970s concerning minorities (and) homosexuals. Then we changed the abortion law, little by little. Now when we look at statistics, we see afterwards that it has worked well. We have less abortions, we have better birth rates, we have fewer HIVs,” she said.
“So what are we afraid of?” she added.