The Impact of International Agreements on Young People

This post is based on remarks delivered at an event held by the Youth Health and Rights Coalition in Washington, DC about the importance of international agreements, particularly for advancing the sexual and reproductive health and rights of  young people globally.

Often times I am asked why the United Nations matters, or why global policy agreements are important. Well, they matter because they serve as blueprints for action, they change policies and programs at the country level, and they help us get access to resources to make change happen. The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which was held in Cairo in 1994, changed the nature of population policies whereby women are recognized as rights holders and decision makers over their own bodies, and not “contraceptor receptors” with an “unmet need” for family planning in order to reduce fertility rates in a given country.

The Commission on Population and Development, or CPD, is the inter-governmental body which monitors the ICPD’s implementation, and where governments recommit to implementing actions towards achieving an integrated package of sexual and reproductive health services: sexuality education, contraception, maternity care, safe abortion where not against the law, STI and HIV prevention and treatment, and protection of human rights.

It’s important to remember that the MDGs come from the ICPD. All of the goals and targets were originally agreed upon at the ICPD.

Now, the High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS (HLM) which will be taking place next week at the UN in New York, is the 10 year review from 2001 when the international community gathered to increase political and financial commitment towards achieving universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support of HIV/AIDS. The 2001 Declaration of Commitment, and the 2006 Political Declaration enabled both donor governments and countries to prioritize funding and programming to prevent and treat HIV.

One of the main provisions of these watershed agreements is the importance of reaching adolescents and young people through recognizing them as both agents of change and beneficiaries of health services. Ensuring that adolescents and young people have the necessary skills to negotiate safe sex, counter violence and abuse, and protect themselves from STIs and unwanted pregnancies through access to sexual and reproductive health services is vitally important to achieve development and health outcomes.

The United States Global Health Initiative, for example, espouses many of the principles that were agreed to at the ICPD, primarily, to reach women with a comprehensive package of health services, close to where they live, and to protect their human rights free of violence, discrimination, and coercion. By investing in the strengthening of health systems, particularly at the primary health care level, programs can save women’s lives and empower young people to exercise their rights to a just and healthy life.

The political battles going on right now in New York as the HLM approaches are primarily about people’s human rights, about women’s sexuality- our bodies, and our lives. Sexuality and reproduction are as contencious as ever in any political process.  Some governments have even proposed language to protect women in their roles as wives and mothers in the context of preventing HIV, as well as the need to ensure parental consent laws for adolescent health services, abstinence and fidelity programs, and a reluctance to recognize the importance of providing women and young people with the necessary services, including female and male condoms, for effective HIV prevention efforts.

The U.S. is being instrumental in supporting strong references to women and youth health and rights. So are the European Union, the Latin American governments, Canada, New Zealand, and a few others. But at the end of the day, oftentimes the fighting over resources and morality trump the necessary conversations about the programs that are most effective, such as sexual and reproductive rights and health.

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