On 10 December 2019, we commemorate Human Rights Day, 71 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), a watershed moment recognizing the intersection of human rights, sexual and reproductive health, and gender equality.
The statement of the Nairobi Summit, commemorating 25 years of ICPD, recognized that:
The future of sustainable development is directly linked to fulfilling the aspirations of adolescents and youth. Empowering the world’s 1.8 billion young people… will be instrumental for bringing the vision and the promise the ICPD Programme of Action and of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to life.
Those signing on to the statement specifically pledged to ensure:
Access for all adolescents and youth, especially girls, to comprehensive and age-responsive information, education and… timely services to be able to make free and informed decisions and choices about their sexuality and reproductive lives, to adequately protect themselves from unintended pregnancies, all forms of sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices, sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, [and] to facilitate a safe transition into adulthood.
The interconnection between the ability of young people to realize their aspirations through accessing quality education and work, and protecting their sexual and reproductive rights cannot be overstated. Consider the 39,000 young people, mostly girls, who get married every day, or the 2 million girls who give birth before the age of fifteen – their ability to pursue their dreams dramatically alters when these life-changing events occur at such a young age.
Another 4 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 undergo unsafe abortions every year, putting their health in serious jeopardy. Although the value of equipping young people with information about sexual and reproductive health is scientifically proven, in many contexts comprehensive sexuality education is not provided.
The sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents and young people are protected under human rights laws, and in recent years United Nations mechanisms and treaty bodies have worked to spell out in detail States’ obligations to ensure these rights.
For instance, human rights mechanisms have identified barriers to young people accessing sexual and reproductive health services required for their health and well-being. They have consistently called for the removal of third party authorisation requirements – so young people need not seek permission from parents, guardians or spouses to access the services they need. Furthermore, the rights of young people and adolescents to privacy and confidentiality in accessing medical services, including sexual and reproductive health services, are protected. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, for example, has encouraged States to introduce a “legal presumption of capacity” for young people seeking such services.
Human rights mechanisms have also specified that adolescents are entitled to comprehensive services, including (emergency) contraception; prevention, care and treatment of sexually transmitted infections; pre- and post-natal care; and safe abortions. Special attention is also needed to ensure that adolescents have access to services without discrimination; otherwise, for certain groups, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, or adolescents with disabilities, accessing sexual and reproductive health services may be hindered by prejudice and stereotypes.
The rights of adolescents and young people go beyond access to health services, and also include to be provided with evidence-based information and comprehensive sexuality education. Such information is vital for young people to make responsible and informed decisions about their health, to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies, and to empower them to build healthy, respectful relationships. The value of such education for adolescents and young people is enormous, as it has a clear impact not only on their health, but also on their ability to exercise other rights, such as the rights to education, participation, work, and bodily integrity.
There are many tools available to implement these standards. For instance, the UNESCO International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education integrates these standards and offers a clear path forward for States seeking to uphold the rights of adolescents and young people, by providing them with the information they need to develop in a safe and healthy way.
Upholding sexual health and reproductive rights for young people is a critical part of supporting them to realize their aspirations and potential. On Human Rights Day, it is imperative to put these guarantees into action for young people.