Few things, it seems, still make members of the international community more nervous and squeamish than discussions about sexual and reproductive health, particularly when it involves young people and especially when it concerns adolescent girls.
But if any progress is to be made when it comes to crafting the new post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now under discussion, diplomats, NGOs and any other actors involved will just have to get over it, according to members of the High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development.
In international forums, “The issues that are often bracketed are the gender issues and, among them, the most bracketed are adolescent sexual health and rights—not among boys, but among girls,” said Dr Nafis Sadik, an obstetrician-gynecologist, veteran diplomat and special adviser on policy to the executive director of UNAIDS, the UN agency dealing with HIV/AIDS.
Sadik spoke on a panel called “Fulfilling the Promise of Gender Equality: Women, Girls and the Post-2015 Agenda” at a side event of the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58) this week.
“It always makes me wonder why policy makers don’t want girls and women to make decisions about their own bodies,” said Sadik. “If we really want to eradicate these preventable deaths, women and girls must be able to make choices for themselves,” she said, referring to maternal mortality - 800 women per day - as a result of lack of healthcare and access to modern contraception.
“These are issues the international community needs to address squarely and not sweep under the carpet” due to cultural squeamishness, she said.
She noted that the right to reproductive health was dropped from the last set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Had that not happened, she said, “I think we’d have a different world today.”
Today’s world has an historically high number of young people and their sexual and reproductive health and rights concerns also were left out of the last MDGs, said panellist Amina Doherty, a youth advocate and member of the board of the Global Fund for Women.
That must change in the new set of SDGs, she said. “Even though we’re mobilizing, we’re here, we were invited, we see our issues are not on the agenda. We’re tired of lip service. We’re tired of ‘youth’ being a buzzword.”
That voice is crucial for the future, said Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, a member of the High-Level Task Force for the ICPD, an independent body established in 2012 to advocate for gender equality, the empowerment of women and young people and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all.
Acknowledging that “sexual and reproductive health and rights remain a highly controversial issue,” she noted that 16 million adolescent girls in developing countries die annually as a result of complications of pregnancy and childbirth, often as the result of early or forced marriage. One-third of girls report that their first sexual encounter was forced on them.
“For me, it’s clear that gender equality should be a standalone goal,” said the Crown Princess on the panel.
The needs of adolescent girls were also on the mind of Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS.
He pointed out that 24 percent of young girls globally don’t know how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. As a result, in South Africa for example, the infection rate among young men between the ages of 19 and 20 is 1 percent, compared with 16 percent for girls in the same age group.
“We will not end this epidemic if we don’t have the courage to focus on who has been left behind - women and girls,” Sidibé said.
The question, the panellists said, is whether governments have the will to make the changes that will promote gender equality and save the lives of women and girls.
“Since we know what works and what we need to do, we must just do it,” said Sadik. “Ideology and false value systems should not stand in the way of doing the right thing.”