RH Reality Check: Many International Agreements Later, Girls and Young Women Worldwide Still Lack Basic Rights

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By Louise Finer, International Advocacy Manager, Center for Reproductive Rights
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Moldova is one of more than two dozen countries that celebrate International Women’s Day — March 8 — as a holiday, with an official day off and a long-held tradition of showering women with gifts. But Moldova is also a country that continues to deprive women and girls of their full reproductive rights, evidenced in part by its refusal to make sexuality education in public schools mandatory and its failure to provide Moldovan women and girls with affordable and safe contraceptives.

This year, for International Women’s Day, the Center for Reproductive Rights is focusing its attention on girls and young women. Adolescents worldwide lack access to the sexuality education and the comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services that play a critical role in their well-being and empowerment. The implementation of the full range of reproductive rights — as fundamental human rights — must be a priority for all countries.

This reality is particularly disappointing given that the international Cairo Conference in 1994 that brought together 179 countries yielded the recognition that the reproductive health needs of adolescents up to that point had been largely ignored.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has long been at the forefront of advocating for access to reproductive health services for young women and girls. We brought two landmark cases on behalf of young women in Peru together with our local partners. In each, a United Nations committee of experts condemned the government for denying legal abortion services to these young women, who suffered tragic consequences as a result. (Read about K.L., a young woman forced to carry a pregnancy to term even though doctors had determined that continuing the pregnancy compromised her physical and mental health, and L.C., a 13-year-old rape victim who suffered irrevocable harm after doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy to enable her to immediately undergo a critical spinal surgery).

In the U.S., we stopped a state policy that would have legalized an unheard of level of intrusion into the medical privacy of teenagers under the pretext of protecting them from child abuse. Kansas would have forced a host of health providers including doctors, school counselors and therapists to report the most innocuous of activities — like French-kissing between teens younger than 16 — to state agencies as possible child abuse. The policy would have made it impossible for teenagers to trust their health care providers.

We took these actions long after the 1994 Cairo conference called for governments to take action, during a period that has seen youth population figures soar. Today, nearly half the world is 24 years of age or younger — but the ability of young adults and adolescents to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights has not kept pace.

  • Every year, people aged 10 to 24 experience 111 million cases of sexually transmitted infections.
  • Sixty percent of people between the ages of 15 and 24 don’t know how to prevent the transmission of HIV.
  • Numerous countries, including India and Norway, violate adolescents’ rights to confidentiality and deter them from obtaining legal abortion services through parental consent or notification requirements.
  • In other countries, including Poland and parts of the U.S., sexuality education courses include content that is inappropriate and ideologically driven.

It’s time to revisit the promises made at the 1994 conference and recommit to making reproductive health and rights for young people a priority. The 45th session of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development presents the ideal opportunity to do so, when states gather in New York to discuss issues affecting adolescents and youth. The Center will be co-hosting a side event with International Planned Parenthood Federation to talk about autonomy, decision-making, confidentiality, and consent, which are crucial issues to adolescents’ ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.

We certainly applaud any country that sees fit to pay tribute to girls and women with this special day. But we call on every country to truly honor them by respecting their human rights to reproductive health information and services, including comprehensive sexuality education. Only in this way can their dignity and welfare be safeguarded.

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