Laws mirror moral values of 'colonial era', not SRHR reality!

Photo credit: Swapna Majumdar
Swapna Majumdar - CNS
  • In India, 17 percent of female sex workers reported starting to sell sex under the age of 15 years.
  • In Maldives and Papua New Guinea, the median age reported among female sex workers ranged from 17-19 years (across surveyed sites), as compared to a range of 22-24 years of age in sites in Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
  • In Pakistan, 'hijras' (transgender persons) and male sex workers reported starting to sell sex at a mean age of 16 years.

Yet, many countries in Asia and the Pacific have restrictive laws that prevent young adolescents below the age of 18 from accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services. According to a November 2013 study of the impact of laws and policies on young people's access to SRH and HIV services many laws in the region have conservative legal traditions related to sexuality and reproduction which consider providing contraception services to adolescents as encouraging promiscuity and immoral behaviour.

The collaborative study by UNESCO, UNFPA, UNAIDS, UNDP and Youth Lead, the Asia-Pacific network of young key affected population, shared at the 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (7th APCRSHR), has analyzed over 400 key legal and policy documents from 32 Asia-Pacific countries.

"It is the first systemic review of its kind in the region on this issue," said Justine Sass, Chief, HIV prevention and health promotion unit and Asia-Pacific regional HIV/AIDS advisor, UNESCO. "We found that many laws often reflected the moral values of the colonial era rather than reflect the reality of SRH rights in today's world."

This is why teenage pregnancy is so high, said Rachel Arinii, a member of Youth Lead. "Restrictions hinder protection from sexually transmitted infections (STI), unintended pregnancy and even HIV. There is a need to accept that many young people under 18 years are sexually active and need SRH services like contraception," contended Ms Arinii.

Photo credit: Swapna Majumdar
Several stories of discrimination and denial of services also surfaced during focus group discussions with young people to understand their experiences in accessing SRH and HIV services and dealing with laws related to age and marriage requirements for services, and the attitude of service providers.

Babu Ram Pant, a youth activist from Nepal, narrated the case of young girl from his country who was told by a doctor that she had HIV without bothering to carry out a health check. When she asked how he came to that conclusion without the necessary medical tests, the doctor told her that since she was a drug user, he didn't need to test her to know her status. He then informed her parents who were so shocked that they broke down. "There should have been some confidentiality. Her consent was not taken prior to informing her parents. This caused great anguish and trauma in addition to the stigma," he said.

According to Jeffery Acaba, a Youth Lead member who was part of the research team, laws which require parental consent before SRH services can be provided cause stigma and discrimination. "Many young people told us how they were denied services because they did not want their parents to know and therefore could not get consent. Unless countries in the region with restrictive laws bring about legal reform such denials can often be fatal."

Swapna Majumdar, Citizen News Service - CNS
January 2014

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