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This week, the United Nations (UN) is host to the 45th session of the Commission on Population and Development. This annual meeting builds on a resolution made in Cairo back in 1994 that outlines how country governments can ensure the sexual and reproductive health and rights needs of their people, and of women and young people in particular. Each year, the Commission assesses countries’ progress on this agreement and new commitments are made to prioritize efforts for the forthcoming year. This year, for the first time, it’s focused exclusively on the needs of young people and we are here at the UN, en force.
As a young sexual and reproductive health activist, I believe in the importance of a rights-based approach to all aspects of sexuality, realized through the provision of basic health services like comprehensive sexuality education and safe abortion. It is not my opinion that we should force these, or any other, services on young people, but rather that we should have the ability to access them if we want to.
Clearly, not everyone believes this. Over the past few years, as the global economic recession and a neoconservative shift has swept the globe, there are more and more organisations that exist to oppose the values and missions of rights-based organisations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which I’m here representing. Many of these opposition efforts are religiously-motivated. Their ‘anti-sexual and reproductive health and rights’ discourse is forever present in the media and continued debate occurs over these controversial issues.
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As a representative of a pro-reproductive health and rights organisation at the United Nations this week, I am extremely aware of the activities of the ‘opposition:’ they have a presence here at the UN as much as they do at the local level, whether they are emphasizing abstinence-only education and demonising sex, or leading obstructive, intimidating protests at abortion clinics, to name just a few examples. A number of these groups have spent the past few years mobilising many young people to be the next generation who can proliferate their propaganda.
From my observations at the UN, I can see how the opposition is attempting to undermine effective public health interventions like access to contraception, a service which enables young women (and men) to decide for themselves if, and when, they have children. Poorly conducted, or sometimes non-existent, the opposition quote clinical trials with a complete disregard for their lack of significant findings, or the potential damage that the perpetuation of their references could have. For example, on a number of occasions I’ve heard that “contraception can cause breast cancer” even though there is no substantive evidence to support this claim. Also, apparently “contraception causes abortion.”
Not only is the information that they provide most often scientifically unfounded (and as a medical student and young medical professional I only accept a scientific evidence base), but the entire structure of their arguments is often ethnocentric and imperialist. Pro-sexual and reproductive health and rights organisations understand that different cultural contexts exist and that there are many social factors that affect and influence one’s identity, sexual orientation, sexual practices and decisions regarding one’s body – especially for young people navigating our development into adulthood.
The opposition wants all young people who deviate from the social “norm” (also referred to as ‘sexual anarchists’) to be prisoners of their own natural identity without the ability to express themselves and their individuality in a safe environment. For example, one opposition organisation strongly believes that homosexuality can be “treated” and one can become an “ex-gay” if they undergo intensive, religiously-loaded therapy. Such absolutist arguments only serve to further alienate this young generation – a group that has, historically and until now, continued to be marginalised. The approach of the opposition is further fuelled by powerful, moralistic language used to ensure that these “sexual anarchists” are judged for their deviant behaviour, shamed, and excluded, regardless of how this affects their health, wellbeing, or rights.
The dangerous thought processes that fuel the relentless, often aggressive enthusiasm of reproductive health and rights opponents are particularly evident amongst their young advocates who have been thrown into an intense environment at the United Nations, often without the necessary preparation. These individuals come across as the minions of the ‘old guard’: the people who have been pushing this restrictive, anti-rights agenda for decades. In previous years, anti-reproductive health and rights youth advocates were openly intimidating to young reproductive rights advocates. Even during my short time here, I know that I have been ’covertly’ photographed so that I can be identified to other youth advocates. That is why I have protected my identity in speaking out. I can honestly say that these are tactics that neither I, nor any of my colleagues, have employed. Rather, we understand that our medically-correct, human rights-based and truly representative messages are all the ammunition we need to mitigate the harm of these proliferators of hate and judgement.
As a young person who has been sent to the United Nations to represent the millions of young people from my part of the world, I see it as my duty to ensure that the hateful messages of these young people and their role models are as far from the outcome document of this meeting as possible.