Women and Youth Point the Way Forward for Asia and Pacific

As more than 400 government and civil society representatives from 40 countries meet in Bangkok this week for the 6th Asian and Pacific Population Conference, women’s rights and youth activists are calling for strong government commitments to sexual and reproductive health and rights in the region.

The five-day population conference is an opportunity for governments in Asia and the Pacific to commit to a forward-looking agenda for women and young people and promote their human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights. These commitments are critical for sustainable development and eliminating the social and economic inequalities that persist in nations across the globe.

The International Women’s Health Coalition and our regional partners—the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, Aahung, RESURJ, and DAWN—are at the negotiations this week to ensure that government leaders agree to concrete actions that will improve the lives of women and girls throughout Asia and the Pacific and beyond. This includes providing an essential package of sexual and reproductive health information, education, care, and services; ensuring access to modern contraception and safe and legal abortion; promoting gender equality; eliminating violence against women and girls; and removing punitive and restrictive laws and policies that perpetuate discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Despite considerable progress since the landmark International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994, millions of women and young people worldwide are still denied their sexual and reproductive rights and access to comprehensive health services. This is particularly true in the Asia Pacific region, where many women lack access to modern contraception and safe abortion, especially in rural areas.

“Over the past 20 years, maternal mortality has actually gone up in Indonesia,” said Ninuk Widyantoro of the Women’s Health Foundation, an IWHC partner organization working across provinces in Indonesia. “Violence against women is still a huge problem. We have a long road ahead to reach the promise of the Millennium Development Goals. Our government ministers must work together across sectors from health to education to women’s empowerment, as well as with community groups at the grassroots levels. It’s time for our government leaders to listen to young people and promote their rights.”

Although more than half the world’s young people live in the region, adolescents—especially adolescent girls—lack the ability and right to have control over basic facets of their lives. There are 24.4 million child brides in South Asia alone, where 2 out of 5 girls marry before the age of 18. In some Pacific countries, more than 50% of girls aged 15-19 experience violence. Thirty-four percent of unsafe abortions occur among young women under the age of 25.

A large number of young activists and representatives of community organizations working with adolescents are attending the conference to ensure that the voices of young people are at the table.

“I’m here to make sure that young people’s demands are not left behind,” said Likhita Banerji of The YP Foundation based in Delhi, India. “Young people in India, including myself, do not have access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information or services, nor comprehensive sexuality education. We have health programs in India, but there is not equitable access for youth, especially from at-risk and marginalized communities.”

Many activists at the Asian and Pacific Population Conference pointed to the groundbreaking Montevideo Consensus signed last month by 38 governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those governments asserted the crucial importance of “sexual rights and reproductive rights for the achievement of social justice and the national, regional and global commitments to the three pillars of sustainable development: social, economic and environmental”—pillars which will form the basis of the post-2015 development agenda.

The Asian and Pacific governments are expected to release their own declaration by the end of the conference. A similar regional negotiation on population and development will take place with African countries later this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The outcome of all these regional negotiations will help set the global agenda for sustainable development when the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015.

In the video below, Likhita Banerji of The YP Foundation discusses why she is attending the Asian and Pacific Population Conference. 

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