Governments Commit to Young People’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

I recently returned from Colombo, Sri Lanka, where government representatives and young people from around the world made progressive commitments to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of youth. The World Conference on Youth, held from May 5-10, marked the first time UN Member States sat alongside youth representatives to jointly negotiate a single outcome.The resulting Colombo Declaration, Mainstreaming Youth in the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” will be an important tool for amplifying young people’s priorities as governments meet to negotiate a new set of sustainable development goals.

Fifteen years ago, governments committed to a set of poverty eradication goals known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  A critical shortcoming of the MDGs was their failure to substantively address the needs of adolescents and young people.

At 1.8 billion, adolescents and young people comprise a quarter of the global population, and their needs are complex. Young people face serious challenges to development:

  • More than 15 million girls age 15 to 19 years give birth every year, with a significant proportion of these pregnancies resulting from rape.
  • Young people aged 15-24 years account for approximately 41 percent of new HIV infections worldwide.
  • Adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 account for as many as 3.2 million unsafe abortions annually in developing countries.

Comprehensive sexuality education and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services that respect young people’s rights are critical to addressing these challenges. Such programs enable young people to make responsible and autonomous decisions about their health and sexuality, and empower them to plan for their lives.

In large part due to the effective advocacy and mobilization of the youth movement, there has been a major emphasis on integrating young people into the post-2015 agenda. However, gaining traction on young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights has been difficult in ongoing post-2015 deliberations.  Young people’s capabilities and earning power continue to dominate the narrative, with arguments for investing in young people as a means for guaranteeing a healthy and well-trained workforce undermining calls for a rights-based, comprehensive, and integrated youth agenda.

At the World Conference on Youth, Member States agreed to a bold and progressive outcome document that explicitly calls on governments to fulfill young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Notably, the Colombo Declaration calls for:

  • “Universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and information, with the involvement of youth, regardless of marital status, with a particular focus on women, persons living with disabilities and marginalized groups.”
  • “A set of targets relating to young women, girls and other gender identities, consistent with existing laws, policies and practices, inter alia on ending all forms of gender-based violence, harmful traditional practices, child, early and coerced marriages and providing universal access to health including sexual and reproductive health and rights in accordance with International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.”
  • “Comprehensive sex education based on full and accurate information for all adolescents and youth.”

The Philippines and Brazil, with support from South Africa, Fiji, Mexico and others, were strong champions throughout the negotiations in Colombo. They fiercely defended their commitments to LGBTQI youth, non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and rights-based, gender-sensitive comprehensive sexuality education. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, and others worked hard to block commitments to sexual and reproductive health and rights, but were ultimately unable to generate support from other Member States.

Youth advocates have sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging him to include the commitments made in the Colombo Declaration in his report to Member States later this year. This report will set the tone for intergovernmental negotiations on creating a sustainable development agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals once they expire in 2015.

With official intergovernmental negotiations quickly approaching, we are hopeful that the commitments made in Sri Lanka are transmitted to UN headquarters in New York. The largest generation of young people the world has ever known will inherit the Post-2015 development agenda. We deserve for our priorities to be genuinely reflected in this new agenda.

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