In 2000, the creators of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) completely overlooked sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), a mistake that, if repeated, would cripple the dreams of millions of young girls and women for years and generations to come.
Access to SRHR enables individuals to choose whether, when, and with whom to engage in sexual activity; to choose whether and when to have children; and to access the information and means to do so. To some, these rights may be considered an everyday reality. However, that is not the case for millions of young people in the world – particularly girls and women.
On Tuesday night, I had the fantastic opportunity to listen to some of the foremost global leaders speak on behalf of ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in the post-2015 agenda. The benefits of ensuring SRHR are society wide and inevitably translate into improved education, economic growth, health, gender equality, and even environment.
“At my high school, you would be expelled if found with a condom.” – Samuel Kissi, former President, Curious Minds Ghana
When girls are healthy and their rights are fulfilled, they have the opportunity to attend school, learn life skills, and grow into empowered young women. Wherever girls’ SRHR are ignored, major educational barriers follow. Child marriage and early pregnancy are major contributors to school dropout rates. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, girls are married before age 18 at an alarming 50 percent and 40 percent respectively. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 percent of adolescent pregnancies occur in marriage, it is safe to assume that not all those sexual acts were consensual and not all those pregnancies were planned.
“Initially I used to oppose family planning, but now I fully support. I support it because my wife has more time to work and earn money.” – The Honorable Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Minster of Foreign Affairs for the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, sharing the story of an Ethiopian man’s changed opinion regarding the importance of SRHR
Protecting SRHR not only saves lives and empowers people, but it also leads to significant economic gains for individuals and for the community as a whole. As previously stated, ensuring SRHR helps to decrease school dropout rates and, as a result, leads to a more productive and healthy workforce as each additional year of schooling for girls increases their employment opportunities and future earnings by nearly 10 percent.
Broader Health Agenda
“We cannot eliminate new HIV infections without providing SRHR services to women so they can make informed decisions to protect themselves and their children in the future. Yes, we will end the AIDS epidemic, but first we need to respect the dignity and the equality of women and young girls.” – Mahesh Mahalingam, Director in the Programme Branch of UNAIDS
Access to SRHR guarantees quality family planning services, counseling and health information. These services are critical, particularly because women are often victims of gender-based violence and sexual assault and thereby face greater risks for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. Failing to secure and uphold SRHR dooms women and girls with an increased risk of unsafe, non-consensual sex and maternal mortality.
“How can you control your life if you cannot control your fertility?” – Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
When a woman can easily plan her family, she is more equipped to participate in the economy alongside her male colleagues. When the sexual rights of a woman or girl are fulfilled, she will experience decreased rates of sexual violence and enjoy a healthy relationship with a respectful partner. When a woman or girl does not fall victim to child marriage and early pregnancy, she can stay in school and achieve anything she puts her mind to.
“The woman continues to bring life, to bring up the next generation, to stand before you and say, ‘I am ready to embrace my rights and to deliver a better planet to humanity.’” – Joy Phumaphi, former Minister of Health, Botswana; Chair, Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health
A 2012 study found that community water and sanitation projects designed and run by women are more sustainable and effective than those that are not. Similarly, women produce 60 to 80 percent of food in developing countries and, with the economic and educational gains that coincide with secured SRHR, a woman is better equipped to effectively manage her land.
The post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will not happen without SRHR being addressed. So far, the world has failed to recognize that SRHR are equally as fundamental to global development as finance and trade. We can no longer afford to view SRHR as a taboo or promiscuous topic. When 90% of first births in low-income countries are to girls under 18; when the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 is pregnancy and childbirth; when two-thirds of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa are among adolescent girls; and when 200 million women want to use family planning methods but lack access, the young girls and women of the world do not have a promiscuity problem – they have a human rights problem.