News Human Rights

Live from Rio+20, Day Two: “Favelas and Protests”

Vicky Markham

Today, here at the BEMFAM clinic in Cachoeirinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro, youth were having a very animated discussion about how they viewed sexuality, reproductive health, being young, and their feelings and emotions about this period in their life.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

This morning I ventured the opposite direction from Rio Centro where the UN Rio+20 negotiations are taking place, and travelled with colleagues to the Cachoeirinha (I was told it means “waterfall”) Favela in Rio de Janeiro. These shantytowns are quite common in Rio, well over one million strong, located within and around the city limits. This particular one has 37,000 residents. We made the trip to visit the BEMFAM reproductive health and family planning clinic there, and were treated to a gathering of youth already discussing the facts of life, and more, with a BEMFAM counselor. This is especially poignant because youth in Brazil, similar to youth worldwide, are key to the issues we are debating here at the UN Rio+20 meetings just a few miles away. The Brazilian youth demographic, and the world’s, is the largest ever in history—it’s called the “youth bulge”—and from favelas, to cities, suburbs and rural areas everywhere, they represent the decision makers for the world’s future at all levels.

Here at the BEMFAM clinic, an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s  array of family planning clinics worldwide, youth have weekly meetings and can come in daily if needed for their reproductive health needs. We entered to find about 25 adolescents sitting in a circle in very animated discussion about how they viewed sexuality, reproductive health, being young, their feelings and emotions about this period in their life. Through translators we learned so much from these adolescents and young adults, and once revealed I can’t help but feel how similar they are to our own youth.  They cared about their friends, family, (how much their parents don’t know), going to college, getting jobs, raising families, school, and having fun. One glaring difference that emerged however is accessibility to many of their hopes and dreams—resources to come by any of their plans are scarce, and few will likely see college or even jobs from what they told us.  This however did not make them dour or negative; they were bright, committed, compelling, cheerful, very well-spoken and passionate  about all they relayed to us.

Snippets of their dialogue in the discussion today centered on the importance, but lack of education about, reproductive health issues for most favela dwellers.  Many of them are “Youth Peer Counselors”, trained to provide information to their friends and adolescent family members. Asked what motivated them to be involved in the BEMFAM youth program, they replied it made them feel privileged not only because they were well informed about RH and healthcare in general through the clinic, but also because it made them very popular at school, they were most sought after as the ones in the “know”—able to impart knowledge about RH and other health issues to their peers.  

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One of the main challenges they said they faced on these topics was the taboo around speaking about sexuality and reproductive health. (Sound familiar?) The Brazilian youth depend on peer advisors especially because their parents and other adults are understandably working or busy, so not very available to advise on these topics. They said there is no separation of church and state in practice (there is in principle) and it is not condoned in church circles, and schools don’t allow SRH education. This heightened the need for the youth peer educators’ involvement.  Some of the youth added that they have good RH services but that the education around it was most lacking, particularly from authority figures.

On a different tack relating more broadly to Rio+20, when asked about the opposition some countries are demonstrating during these Rio+20 deliberations to gender equality and reproductive health and rights, they were quite clear and adamant:  “Tell them to send their own daughters to live in our favela for one month, without any access to RH as they suggest, then when they get pregnant the leaders will see for themselves what it is really like, and maybe they will change their mind.”

Other messages from the favela youth:

  • “Gender equality starts with access to contraception, which then gives us choices about what we can do with our life.”
  • “If I can have one child and give them a better future with education, healthcare, and plenty of food, than I’d rather do that than have many children and not be able to provide for them”.  

When asked about the main challenges they face, their responses centered on lack of opportunities and finances for college, jobs, and healthcare (they have public health services but they are only available during the weekdays/daytime, and they wait for days for “emergency” services, so most just go without).

Once the discussion came back to the Rio+20 conference and what they would say to the world leaders, they were full of ideas:  make water available to everyone equally (there is scarcity in many parts of Rio), clean up the water in the Rio canals and air pollution in Brazil, and in particular the garbage and waste they see in their favelas. And, to include RH, because it was all connected.  One youth favela resident has travelled to New York to the UN to relay her message about population and development topics through the eyes of a young Brazilian, she sees the need for youth to be more included in national and international dialogues not as a sideline but with the weight of adults from other nations.

Back at the Rio Centro complex I understand nations are still debating about language on women and reproductive health. The Women’s Major Group organized a silent protest, and advocates are mobilizing to fend off the conservative governments.  My advice to them after seeing the favela youth—send your daughter to stay for a month, then maybe you will change your mind!  

Tomorrow I will blog about our side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s Lives: A Cross-Generational Dialogue” which will feature grassroots women and youth’s personal stories from Uganda, Nigeria, Pacific Cook Islands, Philippines and Miscopy, US.

Commentary Human Rights

Rio+20: Our “Allies” Did Nothing to Stand Up for Us

Elisha Dunn-Georgiou

Not only is the Rio +20 outcome document, “The Future We Want,” silent on sexual and reproductive rights, but during the negotiations many of  the EU and G77 countries who have been progressive on these issues in the past were completely silent.

Cross-posted with permission from Population Action International.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

Like many, I went to Rio full of expectations. I had been feeding off of the hype around Rio for months:

“This UN conference will be a seminal moment in history!”

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“The outcomes from Rio +20 will set the agenda for a new development paradigm reaching beyond 2015!”

“Leaders from around the world will make sure the world is a better place for youth, women, indigenous populations and generations to come!”

I could go on. But if you’ve seen any of the news on Rio +20, you know it has not lived up to the hype.  Ask anyone from any sector – oceans, food security, education, energy – and they will all express disappointment.  But for those of us advancing the sexual and reproductive rights of women, Rio+20 has been particularly disappointing.  

Not only is the outcome document, erroneously titled “The Future We Want,” silent on sexual and reproductive rights, but during the negotiations many of  the EU and G77 countries who have been progressive on these issues in the past were completely silent. Despite encouragement from the United States and a handful of other countries to protect and support women’s rights, these “allies” said nothing and did nothing as the Holy See, Malta, Poland, Algeria, and other conservative countries rolled back the clock on women’s rights. With friends like these, you have to ask, who needs enemies.

Ironically, on the very day the Rio+20 outcome document was finalized, the Guttmacher Institute and UNFPA released a study showing that little progress has been made in meeting women’s need for contraception. In the 69 poorest countries, the need actually increased from 153 to 162 million women between 2008 and 2012.

This weekend, heads of state will return home patting themselves on the back for arriving at such a quick consensus and for all of the speeches and handshakes and photo-ops throughout the week. But when they return home, what will they have to say to the millions of women whose basic sexual and reproductive rights these leaders did too little to protect or support?  The stakes are too high for the answer to be “nothing.”

We need to let them know that their silence is unacceptable.

News Human Rights

Live from Rio+20, Day Four: “Plenary Floor, Demographic Dividend and the Youth Bulge”

Vicky Markham

While the last hours of negotiations unfold, we begin to look forward to future demographic trends and how to turn them into dividends rather losses.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

June 21, 2012, From RioIt’s the final day of Rio+20 and last minute deliberations in the UN plenary are at a high-pitch – Sweden and Denmark have made strong statements in favor of reproductive rights, and I understand US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling for support of women’s empowerment, reproductive health and rights on the floor as we speak.  We will follow this closely today as the meeting comes to what promises to be a dramatic close tonight.  

While the last hours of negotiations unfold, we begin to look forward.  Fitting then that I attended an important side-event yesterday about future demographic trends and how to turn them into dividends rather losses. For that I headed over to the US Country tent for a high-level discussion on “Making Population Matter: The Demographic Dividend and Sustainable Development”.  

Speakers included:

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  • Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Susan Reichle, Assistant to the Administrator for USAID’s Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning 
  • Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu, Executive Director, African Institute for Development Policy
  • Cassio M. Turra, Associate Professor of Demography, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
  • Carmen Barroso, Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region 
  • Peggy Clark (moderator), Vice President of Policy Programs and Executive Director of Aspen Global Health and Development, Aspen Institute

This topic is important in light of Rio+20 because of the integrated nature of natural resource and ecosystem management and healthy functioning, and the human and economic dimensions.  The more I work on these issues the more profoundly I understand their inter-connected nature, how the issues are not compartmentalized or silo-ed but a mix of human, economic, and environmental considerations. They play out that way in our lives, and must be addressed in that manner by our governments nationally and internationally, as in Rio+20.

The side-event was framed around “whether or not population matters to sustainable development.”  The panelists adeptly proved with research data and analysis that it does. Youth figured large in the panel’s comments because of its global and national significance:  we have the largest youth demographic ever in the history of the world, and most developing nations have a “youth bulge.” This can be seen as a challenge, or opportunity, particularly if the focus is on providing development programs for child survival, family planning, reproductive health, and education. The importance of women’s empowerment was also central.  But it’s not a given, it’s an opportunity only if we pay attention to these issues to increase the benefits of the “demographic dividend.”

The demographic dividend can seem complicated but boils down to the fact that changes in the overall age structure of a population can result in an increase of economic opportunity for a nation and region – it is described in more detail here.

USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg describes the demographic dividend as “an opportunity that arises when a country transitions from high to low rates of fertility and child and infant mortality, creating a generation that is significantly larger than the generations immediately preceding and following it. As they enter working age, they have the potential to contribute to productive economic activities and invest savings at relatively high rates, thus spurring heightened economic growth.

He said that maximizing the dividend doesn’t just happen, and requires social and economic policies that reinforce inclusion, equity, and opportunity across the entire population. In order to reap a potential demographic dividend, countries must accelerate reductions in child mortality, increase access to family planning, ensure strong education, especially of girls and women, adequately prepare the workforce and spur entrepreneurship, and institute sound fiscal and labor policies to create the conditions for working-age citizens to be most productive.”

In Brazil, Carmen Barroso said there has been rapid fertility decline in recent decades, due to a combination of factors.  These included an increase in urbanization (results in fewer children due to increased costs of raising them and lack of extended family in cities), empowerment of women, expansion of their school system (in particular for girls), and increase of women in the job force.  Religious leaders also turned a blind eye to family planning which helped, too.

Dr. Zulu talked about Africa’s unique role in maximizing the demographic dividend, particularly as they have the youth bulge and are the only continent projected to continue especially rapid rates of high population growth over the long term.  He also discussed the just-released Royal Society’s People and Planet report, with a poignant message in the Rio+20 context.  It says decreasing high levels of resource consumption by the most consuming nations, increasing the poorest population’s ability to consume resources so they may increase their quality of life, and managing rapid population growth rates were the three most important things to provide a balance between population pressures and the planet’s environment. 

In light of Rio+20 and the human population and demographic factors (including the dividend),  making economic and policy investments in education, women’s and girls’ empowerment, family planning, child survival and using an integrated approach to these issues were key messages from the panel. Focusing on the most vulnerable and poorest of the population was also a priority.

As USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg put it, “The youth bulge are the young people we didn’t’ reach, the demographic dividend will be the ones we reached.”  This is an opportunity worth taking.

Tomorrow is the last in the series where I will take stock of Rio+20 and ask: where do we go from here?  For me that’s not a very difficult question to answer as we move directly to the next prime opportunities to address these issues at the global scale, through the UK DFID/Gates Foundation’s London Family Planning Summit in July and the UN MDG process this fall.  

And, for additional background information, see the new fact sheet on “Women’s Empowerment and Family Planning: Rio+20, UK Family Planning Summit, MDGs and Beyond”

Stay tuned…