Teenage Girls in Argentina Deserve Better

As multilateral organizations continue to research sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America, I’ve been learning many sad truths about my country.

This year, we learned that Argentina’s teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in the Southern Cone (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay). It’s estimated that 109,000 teenagers and 3,000 girls under 15 years old give birth to a child every year. These numbers make up 15% of annual births in the country.

Most of these pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted. UNFPA’s latest study, The Power of Choice, shows that Argentina’s maternal mortality rates are also much higher than in the rest of this region. For every 100,000 births per country, 52 mothers die in Argentina, 44 in Brazil, 22 in Chile and 15 in Uruguay.

The results of this study have strengthened the call for inclusive sexual education, accessible contraceptives and the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina. 

Adolescent maternity rates are higher in communities living in poverty, where girls are also less likely to go to school or have access to healthcare and contraceptives. When a girl gets pregnant at an early age, she’s very unlikely to continue her studies, which perpetuates a circle of poverty for the girl and her family. She’s also less likely to survive the pregnancy and the birth.

Earlier this month, a 13-year-old girl had a baby in the Chaco province in northeast Argentina, where poverty and early maternity rates are among the highest in the country (according to UNICEF more than half of children under 17 years old in Chaco were living in poverty in 2016).

Her name has been kept secret, but her living conditions have shocked the country. She was malnourished, anaemic and had pneumonia, yet never received treatment for any of these conditions. She was living with an older man, her boyfriend, and wasn’t going to school.

When her 20-year-old aunt took her to the hospital for a fever, they discovered she was 28 weeks pregnant. The fact that this girl was pregnant for 7 months without knowing it…it’s hard to imagine how neglected she was. She had to have a C-section because of her extremely weak condition. The baby lived only a few hours, and the girl died less than a week later.

So many things went wrong for her.

The health system in the province went beyond failing her, because it didn’t even know she existed until it was too late. She didn’t have family to take care of her and the system did nothing. Her health was gravely deteriorating and the system did nothing. She was in an abusive situation and the system did nothing.

Her story breaks my heart. And it hurts me even more to know that she’s not the only one living like this and won’t be the last to end up like this. She deserved better. All of them deserve better. 

The Vulnerabilities of Being Pregnant

Women face unique challenges throughout their lives. For some, one such challenge can be pregnancy. It is an exciting and beautiful time, but it can also be a major test on the strength of a woman’s body and mind.

Did you know a woman’s socioeconomic status has a surprising amount of influence, not just on her baby, but also on how her pregnancy goes? Childbirth outcomes are heavily tied to socioeconomics, with women in more impoverished regions experiencing a wide range of additional challenges.

While some of these challenges are health-related, others are not. Many factors combine for a successful pregnancy and birth, and an individual’s financial situation has a huge impact. Of course, most people can’t just change their financial standing quickly, and so we need to examine ways we can change the culture around pregnancy.

In countries that lack universal health care, financial status has a significant impact on prenatal outcomes. Merely being able to afford regular medical checkups, prenatal vitamins and any additional medications can significantly increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby. It’s impossible to understate how important prenatal care is.

Access to medical care goes beyond prenatal care, though. Women in lower socioeconomic classes tend to be less likely to be able to access health care before becoming pregnant, which also contributes to the health outcomes of the child. Even with socialized health care, the risks remain, because money affects every aspect of our lives.

Women can also suffer in countries without socialized health care. One U.S. case, for example, shows how insurance companies took advantage of pregnant women who qualified for government-funded Medicaid. The companies claimed to give the women coverage, then denied their claims while still collecting the money from the government. This is just one case that demonstrates how willing people and companies can be to take advantage of those in ‘vulnerable’ positions.

There are many countries where access to quality prenatal care should not be an issue. Universal health care should eliminate the barrier, but it doesn’t stop women from having problems. As some studies have demonstrated, even with socialized health care, pregnant women in lower income brackets tend to have more challenging pregnancies, including problems like preeclampsia, premature birth and obstetrical hemorrhage.

Lower incomes make women more vulnerable to things like stress, domestic violence, poor personal health choices and drug use. It has been shown that stress is one of the precursors to birth issues like premature birth and low birth weight.

Studies also show that women experiencing poverty are more likely to experience abuse from their partner. This abuse often occurs alongside other issues, like financial dependence on the abuser and isolation from a support network. The stress, isolation and risk of hospitalization all take a serious toll. Women who are pregnant and have been in the relationship for a while may see violence escalate during their pregnancy.

The problems related to having a new baby don’t just impact the mom and baby. They’re a serious issue for everyone in society as well. Pregnant women are certainly in a place of high vulnerability, but they are not weak links. Women make up half of the population, so we need to address the gendered issues at play.

Addressing the reasons behind the systemic problems that women and new moms face will undeniably lead us to a better and healthier tomorrow for everyone.

17 Ways to Support Grassroots Change Led By Women and Girls

Last week, I joined thousands of world leaders, activists, civil society members, young people, organizational leaders, and yes – even the Pope – for the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) held in New York City. This is my third year attending UNGA and the energy is always buzzing with talk about how we can improve the world and complete global development agendas set forth by the United Nations and leaders around the world.

D

uring the Assembly, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were a set of eight anti-poverty targets to be accomplished by 2015. Development practitioners, economists, organizations, governments and other stakeholders have spoken about the progress made towards the MDGs. These groups would also say there is still much more to be done in order to ensure a more prosperous and achievable agenda through The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to finish the agenda started by the MDGs. But for whom are these Goals really for?

Fifteen years ago, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted, I was sixteen years old. Crazy, right? At that time, I was just beginning to explore my love and passion for other cultures. I knew the path that appeared before me included working to understand and empower women, girls and communities around the world. Over the past ten years, I have had the privilege to both live in and travel to beautiful countries. In the past ten years (since I was 21), some of my most fruitful experiences in global development have taken me to the most unexpected places. I have learned and been a part of change for women and girls on dirt floors, in mud huts, on top of remote mountains and distant islands. It is in these safe and sacred spaces, I have listened to women’s and girls’ stories. I have watched young women and girls initiate conversations on gender based violence in their communities, work to improve maternal health through creating health responses and even go into the deepest of brothels to rescue young girls from being sexually exploited. I have seen women and girls empowered, healed, restored and strengthened through rallying their communities to understand the issues they face on a daily basis.

Can I be completely honest here? If I were to ask those women and girls, “What are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?” or “How have the MDGs improved your lives?”  I guarantee you most would have no clue what I was talking about. This is not because they are unintelligent or do not understand global development. They are actually some of the most intelligent women and girls I have ever met. It is simply because it does not affect their every day lives. The chasm between drafting and implementing global goals and the reality of what is happening to improve the lives of women, girls and communities is wide. World leaders sit behind closed doors to discuss development agendas that often are rarely implemented effectively and simply do not reach the most vulnerable. At the same time, young women, girls, and communities are working tirelessly to create change. Why are we calling for more action from the United Nations when we should focus our efforts on the change already happening for women and girls? The lives being empowered both at a local and grassroots level is astounding. Do we really need celebrities to endorse a cause to make it trendy or get people to listen? I don’t think so. We have amazing women and girls, those at the heart and center of the issues, they are the real celebrities.

In honor of the women and girls I have worked with over the past ten years, I want to share 17 ways we can continue to support grassroots change and ensure women, girls and communities are supported. Let’s call these HER goals.

  1. Stop talking and start listening. Listen to the incredible work happening to empower women, girls and communities around the world.
  2. Give. Consider supporting an organization empowering women and girls at the grassroots level.
  3. Go. Don’t take my word for it. Wherever you live you can find out who is working to create change for women and girls. If you live in the U.S., Africa, Asia or another region of the world. Explore who is creating change and consider joining them.
  4. Stay informed. There is so much grassroots change happening outside of top-down systems.
  5. Look for unique opportunities. The best conversations with women and girls you may have will be in the most unlikely places.
  6. Forget jadedness but be realistic. It can be difficult not to get bogged down in high-level political jargon. Instead let’s focus on supporting the change actually happening.
  7. Read about it. There are so many amazing books and resources highlighting grassroots change women and girls.
  8. Organize. Get together with a group of your friends and talk about the issues facing women and girls in your community and around the world.
  9. Know the facts. Research, research and do more research!
  10. Use your talents and gifts to volunteer and help in your spheres of influence.
  11. Empower a young girl or woman to share their story. We do not want to be voices for others but enable others voices to be heard.
  12. Learn about an issue. Take time every month to learn about something new.
  13. Invest in legit partnerships. There are so many wonderful organizations partnering with indigenous movements.
  14. Advocate.
  15. Add to this list! Do you have an idea? Please comment and share below!
  16. SHARE YOUR STORY. Want to comment or write about it? I would love to hear how you are working to create change for women and girls in your community.
  17. Take Action!! (see the helpful goals above)

I think these are acheivable goals we can all wrap our heads around. In fact, I know so many women, girls, men and boys who are doing this in their communities. Let’s be their champions. Because true change is often purely reflected in the every day lives of women and girls.

Cover Photo Credit: Jared Rodriquez, Flickr Creative Commons

From MDGs to SDGs: Stepping into the World We Want

In Africa, there is a common phrase that says, “When the drummers change their beat, the dancers must change their steps.”

In September, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are set to be adopted by Heads of States at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This meeting will bring together developed and developing countries, politicians, private sector leaders, civil society organizations, faith groups and others to adopt a set of 17 goals that aim to  take forward the job that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in motion by intensifying action to empower the poorest and the hardest to reach. Will the global community be dancing to a new beat that will truly be transformative and have a positive impact on the lives of women and girls or will the new development agenda play out like a broken record?

The following are a few reflections of the proposed 2030 agenda:

Looking Back What Worked

The MDGs have been praised for being useful tool in providing benchmarks for the achievement of special development gains, for priority setting at country levels and for mobilizing stakeholders and much needed resources towards common goals.  However, the MDGs were created through a top down process where Member states came together and formulated a set of development goals through a process that was dubbed a ‘donor driven agenda. The SDGs have been far more consultative process where women civil society groups such as the Women’s Major Group and Post 2015 Women’s Coalition have been actively involved in negotiations around developing this new global agenda. What this meant was that the “missing” voices, aspirations and realities of feminist, human  rights, environmental and social justice movements’ were heard and considered alongside Member states in the framing of the new development agenda.

Looking Forward What Needs Work

The main lesson learned in the (under) performance of the MDGs was the lack of a rights based approach. Sadly, the SDGs equally missed out on a historical opportunity to infuse this critical element that would have contributed to a truly transformative development agenda. For example, the MDG 5 that relates to reproductive, maternal, adolescent and child health is the most off-track in term of progress with the global community far from achieving it. However, the new agenda fails to raise ambition by re-affirming that sexual and reproductive rights are indeed human rights. Notably absent from a young woman perspective is that the  SDGs fail to recognize the necessity of providing comprehensive sexuality education to all young people, in and out of school. For the development agenda to improve reproductive health outcomes, policymakers and practitioners need to draw on a growing evidence base in this field. Most importantly, sustainable development can only occur when women and girls have the right to control all aspects of her sexuality, including her sexual and reproductive health, free from violence, discrimination and coercion.

Looking Up What Promises To Work

Gender equality, human rights and the empowerment of women and girls remains a critical driver to the achievement of the sustainable development goals. As in the MDGs, the SDGs have retained a standalone goal on gender, Goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls” This particular goal goes beyond MDG 3, which focused on parity in education, political participation and economic empowerment, and targets to end all forms of violence, discrimination, early and forced marriage and harmful practices against women and girls and universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Gender equality has further been addressed in other goals such as the goal on equal rights to education and life-long learning, to decent work and equal pay for work of equal value; goal on inequalities within and between countries; the goal on peaceful inclusive societies and the goal on Means of Implementation (MOI). Care economy, paid or unpaid work, which tends to rely on women and girls’ cheap or invisible labor has also been recognized in the SDGs.

New Steps, New Beat

Unsustainable development and inequality and/or the violation of the human rights of women and men are closely linked. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. The disproportionate impact of poverty on women and girls is not an accident, but as a result of systematic discrimination. Until and unless the underlying deep rooted problems that prevent women and girls from escaping poverty are tackled, progress towards the proposed agenda will merely remain a pipe dream. The MDGs failed to address this which resulted in uneven performance of the goals. Still, poor past performance should not hold us back from future action.  The post 2015 development framework remains a major development milestone and a potentially positive agenda waiting to be implemented by the international community. With strong political and financial commitment and gender equality, women’s human rights and women’s empowerment at its core, the 2030 Agenda shall be realized. Ultimately, advancing the rights of women and girls is not just the most effective route to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is also a moral obligation.

Featured image by Salahaldeen Nadir / World Bank.