'Change the Girl's Journey and Change the World'

Swapna Majumdar - CNS
Kate Gilmour UNFPA
If all adolescents in the world were put together they would be the size of India, a country with a population of over 1.2 billion. More than half of the world’s young people entering their reproductive years live in the Asia Pacific. Yet, the young people in this region, many of whom live in poverty, are denied access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. "Their rights are violated, denied and betrayed. It is no wonder that South Asia has the highest levels of child marriage in the world. Six million adolescent pregnancies occur in Asia Pacific, 90 per cent inside marriage. Clearly, very few have autonomy over their bodies," said Kate Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director (Programme), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

In an interview with Citizen News Service (CNS) at the 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (7th APCSRHR) in Manila, Philippines, Ms Gilmour said the fact that 34 per cent of all unsafe abortions in the region occurred to women under the age of 25, was a clear indicator of how their rights were being betrayed.

An estimated 3.6 million unsafe abortions take place each year with young women accounting for a far higher percentage of all unsafe abortions than of pregnancies overall.

It is adult denial of emergent adolescent sexuality that has clouded the ability to engage constructively and act rationally, said Ms Gilmour. Adult exploitation of this emerging sexuality accounted for child marriage, sexual violence and human trafficking.

"Adolescents are not considered old enough to drive but are old enough to be a parent; not old enough to vote but old enough to get married. They are considered old enough to get pregnant but not old enough to be trusted with sexuality education; old enough to catch sexually transmitted infections but not old enough to seek treatment for it. The behaviours, ideologies, baseless fears and moral discomforts of adults drive the sufferings of the young people," contended Ms Gilmour.

She said that the 7th APCSRHR was important because it highlighted the need for the sexuality of young people to be turned from a source of shame and blame to a cause for respect, through priority for investment in sexual and reproductive health.

India had shown the way by launching a national adolescent-friendly health strategy in January this year, said Ms Gilmour. The programme, developed with the help of UNFPA, defines an adolescent as a person within 10-19 years of age, in urban and rural areas, includes both girls and boys, married and unmarried, poor and affluent, in school and out of school.

Ms Gilmour, who was present in India for the launch of the programme, said that the strategy would address the health needs of 243 million adolescents constituting 21 percent of the total population in the country.

No development strategy can afford to ignore investing in youth, pointed out Ms Gilmour. This is why UNFPA was calling for a youth goal to be a part of the post-2015 development agenda, she said. "This goal will mean governments will have to commit to investments on quality education, sexuality education, youth-centred sexual and reproductive health services and information and, greater youth participation in design and evaluation of programmes meant for them. Tomorrow is today aged 10 and it is a girl. If we change that girl's journey, we change all those around her and thus we change the world."

Swapna Majumdar, Citizen News Service - CNS
February 2014