Young and Restless at the United Nations, Youth Fight For Their Rights

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Analysis Sexual Health

Young and Restless at the United Nations, Youth Fight For Their Rights

Jessica Mack

It was a youth takeover at the United Nations last week, for the 45th annual Commission on Population and Development, a global meeting to examine whether and how we are protecting the sexual rights and health of our youngest generation.

To see all our coverage of the 2012 Commission on Population and Development, click here.

Is a 17-year-old an adult or a child? Is a 16-year-old mature enough to have sex? Is a 22-year-old ready to be a parent? It all depends. The answers to these questions, and peoples’ opinions on them, vary dramatically throughout the world. Likewise, the lived reality of each young person leads to different answers – maybe even on different days – depending on a tangle of social, religious, biological, and other factors. 

“Part of why we’re here is to remind [government officials] what it was like when they were young and how it feels – what it’s like to talk to your parents about sex, and what you really need. We cannot expect people to be guessing what we need,” said Oriana Lopez Uribe, a young sexual health and rights advocate from Mexico and delegate for the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Health.

Uribe joined hundreds of other young people last week at the United Nations (UN), for the 45th annual Commission on Population and Development (CPD). The annual meeting reviews country governments’ progress on former commitments to the sexual and reproductive health and rights of their citizens, while trying to squeeze out new ones in the slow march toward a world in which individuals’ rights are respected, protected, and supported. This was the first time ever that the meeting focused exclusively on the needs of adolescents and young people, who are disproportionately vulnerable around the world.

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Imagine the UN, normally awash in a sea of white (mostly male) hair, formal suits, and reading glasses, now overrun with texting, Tweeting youth, bright-eyed and amazingly well-spoken. They came with delegations from all over the world to tell the adults in charge what too many usually try to simply divine on their own: What do young people want and need in order to be healthy, empowered, and responsible?

These discussions and more (which are not new, but are reinvigorated with every young generation that comes of age) formed the framework for last week’s negotiations. The summation was a resolution, hammered out through long sessions into late nights, and agreed upon by all governments present. Key points of the final resolution include:

  • The right of young people to decide on all matters related to their sexuality
  • Access to sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion where legal, that respect   confidentiality and do not discriminate
  • The right of youth to comprehensive sexuality education
  • Protection and promotion of young people’s right to control their sexuality free from violence, discrimination and coercion

The resolution is not binding, but an important stake in the ground telling the world that young people matter. “Young people are rights-holders and they need to be recognized as such. It is high time that we equip them with the information, education and services they need to make informed decisions about their sexual lives, health and well-being,” said Zoe Stewart, a medical student from the UK and youth delegate for the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF),  as she read out IPPF’s statement to delegates. 

The two major bones of contention last week centered on the moral imperialism of adults, including parental consent laws and comprehensive sexuality education. Those who advocate against parental notification laws are not advocating against parental involvement or guidance, but more against the codification of an exact age at which a young person is or is not capable to make decisions, without any consideration of the many other factors potentially involved (e.g. domestic violence, financial dependency, cultural or religious taboos). The opposition, there en force, would like to define anyone under the age of 18 as a “child,” and for all intents and purposes strip away any legal rights or acknowledgement of agency of that person.

Likewise, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) also continues to be a bugaboo. Despite having an armory of data behind it to show that it doesn’t increase risky behavior, but rather leads to healthier outcomes, CSE remains controversial, in part because of adults’ concerns over ‘what is appropriate,’ and fears that discussion of sex will motivate sex. The reality, in any event, is that young people receive information and influences from every part of society and many will have sex whether we like it or not. Don’t we want them to be safe and powerful? 

“At some point society stopped talking about sexuality and stopped recognizing that we are human, sexual beings,” said Uribe. “We young people need to be protected, but also need it recognized that we have rights, that our bodies are our own, and that we deserve to have full scientific information about how to control our fertility and stay safe. We need to be conscious and be able to choose for ourselves.”

By and large, we set young people up to fail. We don’t inform them of things that would keep them safer, we don’t allow them access to services, and we contribute to the stigma they feel if they do seek services. Then we blame them for the consequences, whether it’s hookup culture, STIs, or teen pregnancy. If adults really want to take responsibility, we should take responsibility for the vulnerable situation in which so many young people find themselves right now and think seriously about how to change that.

Yet it is not simply new policies or re-commitments to the same old thing that young advocates are looking for. Rather, they want a re-imagining of the world around them, which recognizes and champions their sexual and human rights, including rights to comprehensive education, and services like contraception and safe abortion, among others. “Most of the donor countries are investing in [adolescent sexual and reproductive health programs], but want to see outcomes and have something they can touch. But you cannot touch freedom. We don’t have a ‘rights-o-meter,’” said Uribe.

This should resonate with adult female reproductive rights advocates (or really adult women in general), because we have a lot in common with youth. We want the freedom that everyone around is always trying to assign to someone else. If we’re 16, it’s not us, but our parents who know best. But if we’re 34, it’s still not us, but husband or some old Congressman who “knows best.”  

“The only way I see,” says Uribe Lopez, “is to empower young people – assure them they have the right to enjoy their sexuality, their bodies, and their autonomy.” The takeaway is clear: we all need to stop saying young people need a voice and should be involved, and just step out of the way to let that actually happen. So can we?