“Why do I do this work? To get money? To get friends? To get some casual sex? To be happy?”
This question was posed to an inter-generational and multinational audience of about 120 delegates on the third day of the 54th UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York. The questioner was Alexis Hernández, a Mexican member of the MenEngage Alliance, and he was asking his listeners why they were engaged in advocacy around sexual and reproductive rights. Alexis was joined by other young advocates during a session sponsored by the International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF-HR), Ipas, the Youth Coalition on Sexual and Reproductive Health (YC) and SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States).
Imane Khachani, a Moroccan physician and member of the YC, began a dialogue between the delegates and panelists by reminding everyone of the importance of the ICPD Programme of Action and the Beijing Platform for Action, two documents adopted by governments worldwide some 15 years ago as guidelines for policies, programs and services related to health. These agreements ushered in an era in which sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) became issues of concern and today young people are playing an ever greater role in SRHR advocacy.
Ghitra Antra, a Moroccan IPPF staffer working in Tunisia, spoke about 16-year-old Fatima, a young woman who became pregnant by an older man without ever having learned how impregnation occurs. Sent away by her parents to work in another city, she had chosen to keep her baby and sought the information and education she had so sorely lacked before becoming pregnant. Ghitra pointed out that her situation highlights the fact that many young people – especially girls – do not enjoy rights such as the right to information and education, to bodily integrity, and to choose the number and spacing of their children. We must do much more to enable young people to become aware of their rights, she said, especially through programs such as peer education where young people can share information and knowledge with other youth.
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Her comments elicited a question regarding whether Fatima really needed rights: “Did some law prevent her parents from educating her?” asked a middle-aged woman. A second delegate lamented the fact that some cultural educational systems, such as grandmothers educating granddaughters, have been lost and said they should be reinvigorated. Other delegates spoke about the need to involve religious leaders and parents so that they do offer correct information to young people. A fourth person’s observation that we do not choose the families into which we are born and that not everyone is fortunate enough to have educated parents who can – and want to – educate us about reproductive health was also echoed by Ghitra. She further pointed out that even school-goers do not always receive sexuality education in schools and considerable numbers of young women lack knowledge about sexuality and their bodies. Ghitra emphasized that gatherings of advocates should motivate people to form more partnerships to ensure these rights for youth – and that they should ensure young people are part of the networks as this will help promote sustainability of efforts.
Ariana Childs Graham, an American working for SIECUS, remarked that sexual rights (dealing with social issues such as relationships and gender) and reproductive rights (which pertain to more biological aspects of health) form a configuration of inalienable and indivisible rights. She cited guidance issued by UN Treaty Monitoring Committees to governments that explain how multiple agents are responsible for fulfilling rights. For example, the right to information must be promoted and guaranteed by parents, educators, schools and governments (e.g., school boards, Ministries of Education). In essence, ensuring that individuals enjoy their rights is a collective obligation.
Responses to Ariana included a question about whether any human rights treaties have guaranteed a right to abortion and a comment that the UN system is marked by hetero-normativity, which fails to recognize the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. A delegate from Japan also noted that speaking about rights can be difficult due to language problems – there is no translation for the term “reproductive rights” in Japanese. Ariana suggested that we accustom ourselves to thinking more about sexual orientation in terms of a continuum of preferences and desires for partners of various sexual and gender identities, rather than in terms of a dichotomy of gays/lesbians versus heterosexuals. It was pointed out that one international human rights treaty in Africa guarantees a right to abortion – the Protocol on the Rights of Women.
When Alexis addressed the crowd with his opening question, he also answered it for himself. “Am I here to become famous? Am I doing this so that I can look cool?” “No,” he said, “I’m doing it because it’s my responsibility as a young man and because I want to contribute to making the world a better place.” He noted that we all know some things are wrong in the world and we want to change that situation. This can be especially true for young people, so it is important for adults to enable them to participate and take leadership roles in advocacy.
Alexis commented on the fact that organizations like IPPF, which involves youth in the design, planning, implementation and evaluation of programs, have shown that interventions are more successful when they include young people in all those stages. He emphasized that when we talk about health for “all,” we must ensure that “all” includes everyone, male, female, and people of all sexual identities. Yet 90 percent of the delegates present at this session, he said, were women. And the 10 percent of men in the room were not necessarily all engaged in advocacy for rights; some were actually working to block rights for women.
He asked delegates to consider that motivating men to become engaged in promoting women’s rights may mean moving away from continual repetition of the negative ways in which men affect reproductive health and sexuality. Rather, he said, we should talk to men about what they can gain in working for women’s rights and improving sexual and reproductive health. Men need to ask themselves: “What do we lose if we don’t work on these issues?” It is through partnership between men and women, Alexis said, that we can truly achieve a different world.
A young man from Peru spoke out to emphasize his agreement with Alexis’ proposals. He remarked that men do not always completely understand women’s issues and exactly what they want, but many young men are willing to learn so that they can work together with women. A young woman asked Alexis if he would consider education on abstinence to be a part of comprehensive sexuality education. His response: “Yes, because young people must have the right of choice. But we also must acknowledge that abstinence is not 100 percent effective, so I would also recommend condoms.” Alexis concluded that steps needed to involve more young people in advocacy include: building inter-generational bridges, building cultural bridges, building bridges between men and women, and promoting inclusive, participatory and horizontal approaches since young people don’t like having things imposed on them.
LaToya Cadogan-Williams, president of a youth organization in Barbados, spoke to the issue of what “adult” organizations can do to enhance youth participation in advocacy and programs. First, she said, we must acknowledge that we have become too fixed on identifying “youth spaces” as particular locations, such as rooms at clinics. We need to broaden our thinking so that we see youth spaces as all kinds of places where young people interact: the barber shop or beauty parlor, a youth centre, the Internet, facebook and twitter. We must be willing to keep including new types of spaces as they are evolving all the time along with the young people. Doing this will enable us to reach out to more youth.
A second essential point, LaToya said, was to give young people spaces where they can act and not only talk. Letting them participate in a panel but then denying them the opportunity to carry out concrete activities is useless. Young people in leadership positions need to be accountable to other young people, but they must be enabled to become effective leaders by giving them the opportunity to practice; this can be through mentoring, internships, fellowships, and giving them access to the media. In addition, young people need some incentives, the least of which would be a pat on the back to acknowledge all their hard work.
LaToya concluded by saying that larger organizations should not just relegate young people to working on “youth issues.” Rather, they should mainstream a youth perspective into all their work so that they take into account how all aspects of their programs affect young people. This, rather than tokenism, is what youth want, she said to very loud applause.
It would be interesting to know how many delegates take heed of all the advice offered by our young colleagues and initiate changes where they work so that youth advocates can indeed participate in leading the way!