Removing Barriers to the Fulfilment of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

During this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I had the privilege of attending an event on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) promoted by EngenderHealth. The 2017 theme for the CSW was “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work”. It may seem as though the topic of sexual and reproductive health and rights does not fit into this theme, but in fact there is a strong link between economic empowerment and sexual and reproductive rights.

For women to truly be able to enjoy economic empowerment and equality with men in the workforce and elsewhere, they need to be given the information they need to make decisions about their bodies and reproductive choices. Unplanned pregnancies during adolescence, contracting an STI, HIV/AIDS, and having to deal with the complications of childbirth are all examples of situations that put women at a disadvantage to men economically and in the workforce. With the proper knowledge and access to services, women, starting at a young age, can be empowered to take charge of their bodies and lives.

Two main barriers stand in the way of the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health rights for women worldwide:

1) Policies that restrict information and access to SRHR services

2) Lack of comprehensive sexual education for young people

A main topic of discussion throughout the event was the reinstatement of the global gag rule by American president Donald Trump. This is a prime example of the kind of policies instituted by governments which limit and restrict access for both women and men to essential information and services such as family planning, STI testing, HPV vaccinations, and pre- and post-natal care, just to name a few. Unfortunately, decisions that affect millions of people worldwide still rest on the hands of a few with the political power to do so, and that’s why it’s important for the civil society to keep their governments accountable, as well as to take action in the areas of society where they can have power, such as in education.

The saying that knowledge is power is especially true when it comes to the sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, despite the importance of sex education for young people, especially young women, in most parts of the world sex education is lacking in formal education. And this isn’t just a problem in the developing world: in the United States, for example, out of the country’s 50 states, only 24 plus the District of Columbia (DC) require sex education in schools. Something that was brought up by some in the audience and addressed by the panelists is the need to make sex education empowering for young people; it should speak their language, and take advantage of the technology they use, so that what they learn can actually help them make wise choices regarding sexual and reproductive health in their everyday lives.

One thing that is important to point out is that sexual and reproductive issues are intersectional: women’s race, educational level, and economic standing also play a role. For example, in the United States rates of teen pregnancy are higher among black and hispanic women than white. The birth rate per 1,000 females between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2014 for white women was of 17.3, while for black women it was 34.9, and 38 for hispanic. A comprehensive sex education, then, should also take into consideration these intersectional issues.

At the end of the event, the overall message was clear: now is the time to act. Those committed to sexual and reproductive health and rights must not be discouraged in the face of the challenges, but encouraged that despite them – despite the global gag rule and precarious sex education in many parts of the world – positive achievements have been made. The teen pregnancy rate in the United States has hit a record low in recent years, and maternal mortality worldwide has also decreased dramatically. These positive reports exemplify that investing in sexual and reproductive health and rights actually gives results. And ultimately, the reason why this issue is so important is that removing the barriers to SRHR fulfillment isn’t just going to benefit women – it’s going to benefit their whole society.

The Girl Child Platform is going to CSW

For the second year in a row the Girl Child Platform is going to the UN:s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. The 61st session of CSW begins on March 13th and continues for two weeks. Representatives from UN member states, UN agencies and nonprofit organizations from all over the world will participate in the sessions.

The theme of this year’s session is “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work”. Today the labour market is in many ways unequal. Women often have lower salaries and inferior benefits than men. Men are also more often in power positions than women. However, this year’s theme is also important for young girls and not only adult women. Reports by The Adolescent Girls Advocacy and Leadership Initiative indicate that teenage girls represent the most economically vulnerable group in the world. Above all the problem remains that women and girls do a lot more unpaid work, like taking care of the household and the family. In many cases this workload leads to girls having to leave school, which contributes to the fact that women in many cases can only find unqualified occupations because of their lack of education. Other issues that girls face are labour and sexual exploitation, child marriage and trafficking.

Girls who are given the opportunity to become economically independent increase their chances of becoming independent in other aspects of life as well, such as increased control over one’s own decisions, body and life choices. To make girls aware of the meaning of independence and economic empowerment in early ages enables equality in older ages. Real change in women’s economic empowerment can be achieved only when girls are empowered.

It is therefore vital that the girl perspective is included and represented in discussions on economic empowerment during CSW. We need to create change both for girls in the present and in the future. It is important to listen to girls themselves and not only have adults speak for them. This is a message that the Girl Child Plattform wants to spread during the upcoming session, as girls are experts on issues that concern girls. To do this we will bring with us 17 people from our member organizations who work with the girl-perspective, and spread the material we have collected from our campaign GirlSmart (Tjejkunnig in Swedish), where girls have sent in their thoughts on what needs to change in society for girls. Girls are experts on girls and their voices need to be heard.

Global Advocacy at CSW: Girls’ Rights On Our Own Terms

For the past week, I have had the opportunity to join hundreds of girls and young women in the annual Commission on the Status of Women at the UN. Together with eight leaders from the Girl Child Platform, we advocated for two things: that the rights of girls and women needed to be at top of every development agenda and we need to define the empowerment of girls and youth on our own terms.

First of all, the rights of girls need to be defined in a comprehensive and ambitious way. Governments in partnership with the development community need to guarantee every girl’s right to a life free of violence and discrimination; the right to health, education and adequate nutrition; the right to water and the right to a healthy environment. All these rights need to be guaranteed in order to ensure the wellbeing of girls. Throughout the event, we worked to raise the rights of girls in the agenda and to ensure they are all guaranteed in a comprehensive way. When it comes to international development policies, governments tend to commit on the bare minimum to ensure a global agreement. But when it comes to girls’ rights there can be no compromises. And they need to be guaranteed for all, whether a girl lives in a city or in a rural community, whether she lives in a conflict-ridden country, regardless of race, geographic location, immigration status and socioeconomic status. Governments must ensure girls’ basic rights and guarantee that no girl is left behind.

While there are many programs and policies promoting gender equality around the world and in my own country (Mexico): the issue is not the “what” but the how. Educational policies, sexual and reproductive health policies, cannot be top-down approaches. They cannot be based on the same patriarchal mindset that has generated multiple inequalities in the first place. Gender inequality is rooted in unequal power relations. Policies need to be bolder to transform these social structures and relations that keep a patriarchy in place. In order to change this, the international development community and national governments need to place girls and young women at the center and invest in their inherent value and leadership. Programs can’t see girls as victims or beneficiaries, they must make sure girls get an opportunity to fulfill their potential. And one effective way to do this is to invest in their empowerment.

The empowerment of girls has been at the center of global debate now but it should be up to girls, adolescents and young women to define what this really means.

Empowerment occurs when girls or young women understand that they have rights and that they should have the opportunities and freedom to fulfill these. The empowerment occurs when a girl no longer internalizes the unequal power relations between women and men. It is when a girl or young woman truly believes she is a leader and she knows that she has the possibility to shape her life and that of her community and country. And this process doesn’t happen overnight and it’s normally not included in statistics or policy planning.

The empowerment of girls and young women is an individual and collective long-term process and it varies according to different contexts. There is not one solution, plan or policy that can work for all. And that’s why the role of girls and youth advocates is so vital both at the global level and the national level. As a new generation, many of us believe in a new world where equality and justice is possible and necessary. We are to define our rights on our own terms. Now it is time for governments and the UN, who speak about empowerment and rights, to include our inputs, criticisms and contributions. It’s our right and our engagement in the process is the only way we can bridge the gap between promise and reality.

Written by Ana Lucia Marquez Escobedo, The Hunger Project Mexico

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Is My Body Truly Mine? Thoughts from CSW

At the moment I am part of The Girl Child Platform’s delegation at CSW, the United Nations’ yearly conference on the status of women, in New York. This week thousands of women and girl activists from all around the world are gathered to raise awareness about women’s and girls’ rights. We come from different cultures and backgrounds but what the majority of all the discussions has been about this week is the right to one’s own body.

This has made me wonder if my body has ever been mine at all. As a girl, no matter where in the world you live, you are being taught from day one that your body exists for someone else and that your body should be shaped, formed and used for others.

The first time my body was kidnapped I was 13. My body was changing, growing, and turning into – what my mother called – more feminine shapes. But for me my body was not turning more feminine because I did not look like the women on the magazines or in the movies. I did however understand that femininity was “good” and something that could offer me happiness according to society. So I began the strive for the magazine version of femininity. What it gave me was three years of depression and countless of hours at the hospital.

The second time my body was taken away from me I was 17. I had never had sex before and was not really interested in it either, but the boy I was seeing was. At the time I did not understand what had happened. I did not even reflect over the fact that someone had taken my body and done whatever he wanted with it, because society had never made me feel that I had the right over my own body in the first place. It took years of therapy to achieve the understanding that my body actually could be mine.

My story is not unique, it is a story that girls today are more likely to tell than not. The fact that most girls today are taught that their bodies are not for them, and that they have no say in how their bodies should look like or how they should be used, is a massive violation of basic human rights. The RIGHT to one’s own body. This prohibits girls to reach their full potential and to bring out the power that is inside every girl. Societal kidnapping of girls’ bodies leads to gender inequality, and so much effort and time is need to take back what should have always been ours, OUR BODIES.

I believe the only way this struggle will end is when states take their responsibility and invite girls to the decision making table. In most seminars and discussions here at CSW decision makers talk about girls, but not with us. Policies and resolutions will never be able to address and capture the true issues if the ones who carry the experiences are never invited to speak and to be listened to. The Girl Child Platform is here just because of this, to make sure that girls are included. We represent over 30 organizations and I believe that through this partnership our voice is strengthened, and by continued cooperation we will be able to smash patriarchy and put ourselves at the decision making table.

What do you say, how do we get decision makers to include girls?

Written by Emma Blomdahl, The Girl Child Platform and Föreningen Tillsammans (The Togetherness Association)

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When Women Have It All

Originally published on The Huffington Post – Impact

A couple of weeks ago, the world came together to celebrate International Women’s Day. Last week and this week, the 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is taking place in New York, bringing together UN agencies, governments and civil society to take stock of the situation of women and girls, particularly in relation to the Millennium Development Goals. In 2011, October 11 was designated as the International Day of the Girl Child, which has now been celebrated twice, under the themes of ending child marriage and innovating for girls’ education. In many fronts and in many ways, women and girls are better off today than they have ever been before, and are gaining more attention and more momentum.

However, today — and on any other day — millions of women around the world fall short from realizing their full potential. Today, as on any other day, around 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Millions of women are raped, attacked and battered. Female fetuses are aborted. Women are blocked from educational and career opportunities and prevented from participating decision-making processes — solely because of their gender. Women and girls are negatively impacted by simple things like menstruation, or lack of lighting on roads or separate toilet facilities for girls and boys. There may have been plenty of progress, but several barriers and obstacles to gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment continue to exist.

In the meantime, particularly in western societies, we often find ourselves engaging in the “can women have it all” debate. For us, “having it all” generally refers to women being able to combine having a family and having a career. “Having it all” means not having to give up your professional ambitions and aspirations for the sake of starting a family, not having to choose between being a mother and being a professional — a goal we should all, without a doubt, strive for. However, in the world we live in, for a vast majority of women “having it all” means something entirely different. It means not living under constant fear of violence and abuse; not having to worry about unsafe pregnancy and childbirth; not being denied education for being a girl, or not being turned away from a job because of our sex. It means not having to skip school because of menstruation, or having to spend hours every day on fetching firewood and water. “Having it all” means having equal opportunities to become involved in politics and decision-making, and being able to have control over one’s own life and destiny. For some women, “having it all” may simply mean not having to fear for their lives solely because of their gender.

This year, UN Women chose “Equality for Women is Progress for All” as the theme for Women’s Day. It is time to take a moment to reflect what kind of a world we want to build – not only for women and girls, but for men and boys as well. We want a world where women everywhere can, truly, have it all — a safe, healthy, balanced and fulfilled life, with equal opportunities for everything and anything despite where they are born, where they live, what the color of their skin is, what religion they practice. We need a world where women can finally realize their full potential and become agents of change and progress. In a world where women have it all, it is not only women and girls who benefit, but every single one of us — because women’s and girls’ well-being translates into well-being and progress on a much broader level.

This is not something we need to strive for only on Women’s Day, or during CSW, or on Day of the Girl, but on every single day until gender equality becomes a reality for all girls and women around the world. Particularly now, as 2015 is right around the corner and world leaders and decision makers are coming together to craft the next Global Development Agenda for the post-2015 period, it is crucial to ensure that women and girls are not left outside of the process and are not ignored in the new development goals, targets and indicators. No country in the world can afford to waste the potential of half of their population anymore. Let’s ensure that women and girls can, truly, have it all — health, education, security, decision-making power, participation, access to resources, voice, empowerment – because a world where women and girls have it all is a better world for all of us.

This month, Girls’ Globe is partnering with Johnson & Johnson to highlight stories of women and girls who inspire us to strive for a better, more gender-equal and just world. Visit us on Twitter @girlsglobe and @JNJGlobalHealth to share a story of a woman who inspires you with #WomenInspire.