Janine Kossen, Advocates for Youth
Last week, promising news broke about a decline in global maternal mortality over the past 28 years. While this is indeed fantastic news and definitely a step in the right direction, the reality is that complications from pregnancy (including childbirth and unsafe abortion) are still the leading cause of death for young women aged 15-19. Furthermore, the abovementioned report makes note that progress in reducing maternal mortality would have been even greater had it not been for HIV/AIDS, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the epidemic has taken a drastic toll on the lives of women, men, children, and youth.
Fortunately, U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke (D-11th NY) recognizes both the interconnectedness of health and human rights and the unique needs and power of global youth. This week, she introduced The Global Sexual and Reproductive Health Act of 2010 (H.R. 5121), a groundbreaking piece of legislation that would fundamentally transform U.S. foreign assistance policy regarding sexual and reproductive health, bringing it in line with a rights-based approach.
Rep. Clarke’s bill would change the way the U.S. does business abroad by calling for the implementation of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programs, including voluntary family planning, education and outreach, reduction of unsafe abortion, STI and HIV prevention, integration of services, training for health professionals, abandonment of harmful traditional practices, and provision of sexual and reproductive health services during emergencies. As such, it envisions a continuum of care that is responsive to the range of sexual and reproductive needs of individuals in the developing world.
The bill also draws special attention to serving the needs of young people by including a section specifically focused on the provision and promotion of sexual and reproductive health care for youth, including comprehensive sexuality education. Again recognizing the power of youth voices, the legislation also calls for the incorporation of young people’s recommendations in program design and delivery. Who knows better what youth need than youth themselves? Youth have been speaking out … it’s high time the rest of the world, including the U.S. Congress, heard their voices loud and clear!
Having served as a health volunteer with the Peace Corps in West Africa several years ago, I realize how important this bill is. While HIV infection rates are still comparatively low in West Africa compared to Southern Africa, there is still reason for great concern. Given economic, political, geographic, religious and cultural barriers, I found many young men and women in my community were unaware of their status, having never been tested or even knowing how or where to get tested in the first place, let alone understanding what services would be available to them should they test positive (or negative). Very few safe spaces existed to allow youth to learn about prevention or treatment efforts, share experiences, and advocate for their health and rights.
In addition to the silent HIV/AIDS epidemic I saw emerging, as a volunteer I also became extremely concerned about other health concerns that disproportionately affected youth. More often than not, I noticed that dire economic conditions spelled disaster for youth dreams and aspirations. Time and time again, I witnessed ambitious young students, mostly adolescent girls, dropping out of school not by choice, but out of necessity in order to feed their families, care for younger siblings, or even because they were forced into early marriage themselves. In some cases, I saw girls as young as 12 or 13 become brides to men in their 40s and 50s. Before they had even developed their own bodies and minds fully, they were having babies of their own due to rigid laws regulating access to contraception, inadequate information and education, and insufficient resources. Child marriage also put these young girls at greater risk of HIV infection, further exacerbating their health, education, and economic livelihoods.
Unfortunately, my experiences as a health volunteer weren’t unique. Worldwide, 45% of all new HIV infections occur among young people aged 15-24. Furthermore, each year, 15 million women aged 15-19 across the globe give birth, with 1/3 of women in the developing world having babies before the age of 20. In fact, my host mother, who was actually younger than I was at the time, had already had six children by the time she was 25. When I went back to visit her two years later, she confessed that she didn’t want to have any more children, but lacked the power, finances, and access to contraception to make that decision herself. Needless to say, it came as no surprise when my host father called a year later to tell me that I had a new baby sister. My heart sank, for I knew that any ambition my host mother had for herself and her children was rapidly slipping away.
The good news is we know what programs work and are starting to see a little glimmer of hope. Yet, there’s still a vast unmet need for services we haven’t been able to address. This is where YOU come in! Youth and adult allies have the power to be catalysts for change! Young people comprise nearly 50% of the world’s population. As such, decisions young people make today will affect the health and well-being of this planet for decades to come.
As the largest donor in the area of sexual and reproductive health, the United States has a unique role to play in averting unnecessary deaths and unintended pregnancies while promoting healthy sexual and reproductive health. As a signatory to several human rights instruments, the U.S. also has a legal obligation to ensure that its commitments are upheld. Ensuring that young people have the sexual and reproductive health information and services that they need to make healthy decisions is crucial to meeting the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating poverty, achieving universal education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, and ensuring environmental stability. Focusing on one to the exclusion of others is never going to make a dent in improving the situation of women, men, youth, and children across the globe.
Advocates for Youth has said it before and we’ll say it again…it’s all about Rights, Respect, Responsibility! Youth have the RIGHT to accurate and complete sexual health information. Youth deserve RESPECT. And society has the RESPONSIBILITY to provide young people with the tools they need to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health.
Thank you to Rep. Clarke and her co-sponsors for being strong advocates for youth!