One month after the New York Times Magazine dedicated an entire issue to the discussion of why women’s rights are the cause of our time, events and meetings related to the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York this week echoed the need for investment in women and girls worldwide.
Today, I attended a high-profile panel focused on combating violence against girls. The speakers made excellent remarks, although all of them missed a key element critical to the prevention of violence against girls and women: gender-sensitive and rights-based sexuality education.
Organized by the Netherlands, the United States and Brazil, “Combating Violence Against Girls” brought together ministers and representatives of UN agencies, including the World Health Organization, the UN High Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Population Fund. Moderated by Al Jazeera presenter Riz Khan, speakers included US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Verhagen, Brazil’s Minister of External Relations Celso Amorim, and International Children’s Peace Prize winners Mayra Avellar Neves from Brazil and Thandiwe Chama from Zambia.
Secretary Clinton began her remarks by stressing that girls and women’s rights are central to the U.S. Administration’s foreign policy. Both Minister Amorim and Minister Verhagen mentioned a recent UN study on violence against children, which states that “no violence against children is justifiable and all violence against children is preventable.” Several speakers stressed the need to adopt measures that ensure education, punishment of aggressors, and the engagement of women and men in the efforts to end violence.
The meeting definitely showed a high level of interest by the governments that organized it, which supported the work of the recently appointed Special Representative on Violence against Children, Mrs. Marta Santos Pais. In a joint press statement, the US, the Netherlands and Brazil expressed their “commitment to combating all forms of violence against girls: child abuse in the home and family, sexual exploitation, rape and other sexual violence in situations of armed conflict, forced child labour, violence in schools and other institutions, and violence in the community generally.”
Although it was a remarkable event, none of the speakers mentioned comprehensive sexuality education as essential to preventing violence against girls. As Minister Amorim explained in his speech, violence against girls is caused by gender-based discrimination and worsened by other components such as racial discrimination. Therefore, the root causes of gender-based violence, including gender inequality and the lack of empowerment of girls and women, must be addressed.
Those issues have been successfully addressed through comprehensive sexuality programs implemented by IWHC partners, including Girls Power Initiative in Nigeria and Grupo Curumim in Brazil. These comprehensive sexuality education programs do not just give young people biological information about their health and information about health services: they teach young people about sex, contraception, and pregnancy; communication and decision-making; and help them learn how to establish equality in relationships, respect the right to consent in both sex and marriage, and end violence and sexual coercion.
Efforts to combat violence against girls will only be complete if they include sexuality education programs that are gender sensitive and have a rights-based approach. Through these programs, we can create a healthy and just world for young people, and future generations.
Denise Hirao is IWHC’s Program Officer for Latin America.