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Special session on children: a response to the needs of children and adolescents worldwide? (Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights).

This essay was prepared by the Working Group for the Worm Summit for Children (CRC+10) of the Red Latinoamericana y Caribena de Jovenes por los Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos (REDLAC, Latin American and Caribbean Youth Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights).

Societies throughout the world place children and adolescents in positions that leave them vulnerable and put them at risk. The lack of gender equality deeply rooted in the lives of girls and women means that they are especially affected by these practices and suffer violent and discriminatory practices that compromise their health, education and opportunities for development.

Of the one billion adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 in the world today, 85% live in developing countries. According to the most recent UNAIDS and UNICEF report (2002), more than 50% of new HIV infections worldwide occur in young people between the ages of 15 and 24. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 31% of the young people who live with HIV/AIDS are women. At the same time, approximately 6 million children and adolescents are subjected to severe violence, and each year 80,000 die as a result of violent acts that occur in their homes. Sexual assault, child abuse, child labor, domestic violence and sexual exploitation also seriously affect children and adolescents.

In Argentina, 10% of all young people between the ages of 15 and 19 who live in urban areas are adolescent mothers; in 1997, 15.4% of all registered births were to mothers between 10 and 15 years of age, a total of 104,000 births each year. In Colombia, the teen pregnancy rate has risen significantly over the past few years, increasing the number of single mothers and abortions practiced in inadequate sanitary conditions. In Uruguay, 17% of all births are to adolescent mothers, due in part to a lack of specialized services for young people.

Meanwhile, sexual abuse, harassment and rape of minors are some of the most common and frequent forms of sexual violence. For example, 77% of all reports of sexual abuse filed in Lima (Peru) in 1996 involved girls and adolescents.

The United Nations General Assembly held a Special Session on Children at the UN headquarters in New York in May 2002. The Children's Forum had been held previously with the participation of approximately 350 children and adolescents from all over the world. In addition to recreational activities, the Forum offered spaces for discussion on topics such as education, poverty, participation, healthy living and HIV/AIDS.

During preparatory meetings, United Nations member countries drafted a plan of action that was discussed, negotiated and approved in the Special Session. This document, "A World Fit for Children" will serve as a plan of action to help governments transform the current and future conditions in which children are living. The plan contemplates the fact that the world must consider all the social and age groups in which children and adolescents develop and live. In addition, adolescents were incorporated into the document as a specific population with its own needs and demands.

One key issue was using the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the basis for the plan of action. The United States did not ratify the Convention, suggesting that the word "well-being" be used instead of any reference to the "rights" of children. It maintained this position during the preparatory sessions and blocked consensus agreement on the issue. After lengthy negotiations during the Special Session, the United States relented, and the group was able to include the term as the focal point of the document. The Convention will now be the conceptual basis for all policies on children created between now and the year 2010.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, adolescents do not generally have access to accurate and systematic information on sexuality, reproduction and their rights, particularly in regard to the safe exercise of sexuality. The absence of sex education programs in schools means that the media, which transmit a variety of sometimes contradictory values and stereotypes, are the only and/or principal source of information. This increases high-risk behavior and exposes adolescents to unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.

Given these needs and the taboos that exist regarding sexuality, one of the central topics at the Special Session on Children was negotiating sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents. The United States and the Holy See opposed the use of the word "services," arguing that this included abortion. The Arab countries and a bloc of African and Islamic countries supported this position. The Rio Group (a bloc of all Latin American countries except Cuba), the LMG (Like-Minded Group: Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, San Marino, South Korea, Canada and Croatia), and the European Union maintained that ensuring that children and adolescents have access to trustworthy services and information regarding sexual and reproductive rights was fundamental. In the end, however, the issue was not incorporated into the document because the United States made a strategic agreement with the European Union, leaving the Rio Group alone supporting this controversial issue.

The discrimination that adolescents face when they are deprived of access to the same health services offered adults is unjust since, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child declares, every child and adolescent has a right to health, information and education (Articles 6, 23, 24, 25, 26, 33 and 39). The rights of adolescents, especially rights that are associated with sexual and reproductive health, should be recognized and guaranteed by virtue of adolescents' intellectual maturity and level of personal development. Asking for information and advice in order to adopt birth control methods and good practices regarding sexual health when one is sexually active or will soon initiate one's sexual life is in itself evidence of maturity and an understanding of the need to protect one's sexual and reproductive health. Obstructing adolescents' access to sexual and reproductive health services is a discriminatory act and a violation of their human rights. Guaranteeing services that respect adolescents' right to confidentiality and privacy, on the other hand, means responding to, respecting and ensuring the full exercise of these rights.

All in all, the document from the Special Session on Children does not constitute a step backwards in comparison to documents previously approved by the United Nations in Cairo and Beijing. On the contrary, it adds to these agreements the recognition of sexual and reproductive health in adolescents, which is not addressed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The topic of sex education was incorporated into the section on the prevention of HIV and STIs, which states that by the year 2005 measures should be taken to increase women's and adolescents' ability to protect themselves from the risk of contracting HIV--particularly by offering health services that incorporate sexual hygiene and reproductive health and by providing preventive education that promotes gender equality in a framework of respect for cultural and gender differences.

The United States government's unilateralism under the Bush administration has been one of the greatest obstacles to sexual and reproductive rights. We can expect their reaction to future United Nations processes will be similar, which encourages us to prepare for a tougher struggle for these rights.

But this is only the first step in a global battle, even though international law declares that children, including adolescents, enjoy the same human rights as adults. Approved in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) spells out the rights of women and how to ensure equality with respect to men. For example, CEDAW explicitly mentions women's right to have access to information and family planning methods and to receive an education that is free of gender stereotypes. Regardless of its name, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child includes all persons from birth to the age of 18 and therefore recognizes the rights that one should enjoy throughout one's adolescence as well as during childhood.

The CRC states that boys, girls and adolescents should be considered individuals with rights. This means that they have the right to make decisions, express opinions and participate in all of the areas affecting their lives, especially with respect to the right to health (Art. 24) and education (Art. 29). For girls and young women, possessing rights and awareness regarding these rights is part of the exercise of citizenship, which we construct precisely through the exercise of our rights from childhood onward. The vulnerability of these rights and the lack of health care specifically designed to meet the needs of the population have a negative impact on comprehensive development and rights at the highest level of health, which expressly violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The rights perspective has practical applications because it implies overcoming purely sectarian approaches to the problems that children and adolescents face. For example, each year approximately 15 million women between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth in the region, which represents 10% of all births worldwide. Teen pregnancy and early marriages are closely linked to the failure to ensure adolescents' rights in our region, as well as the scant attention paid to their particular needs.

The United Nation recognizes sexual and reproductive rights as human rights that constitute a part of the right to comprehensive health care and development and that include many other rights that adolescents should exercise, including:

* The right to decide whether or not to have sex, free from coercion or violence. The right to be oneself and to freely make one's own decisions and express oneself.

* The right to decide whether or not to have children, how many to have, and when to have them, as well as the right to decide with whom to have them.

* The right to receive timely and adequate sex education, principally at home and at school. The right to have access to adequate information in order to avoid the undesired consequences of sexual relationships: unplanned pregnancies and STIs, including HIV/AIDS. The right to remain within the educational system and any other organization while pregnant, raising children or living with HIV/AIDS.

* The right to have access to the highest level of sexual and reproductive health. The right to participate in planning programs or policies related to one's sexual and reproductive rights. The right to have access to adequate services in a climate of trust, privacy and confidentiality as well as informed consent.

At REDLAC we feel that the importance of the plan of action depends on the work carried out in favor of children and adolescents that is designed and implemented by each country. A great deal of progress has been made in regard to this issue thanks to the fact that the Rio Group's position was advanced through the entire process of negotiating the terms of this document.

In the face of the virtual absence of public policies related to this issue, the support of NGOs and national and regional networks in the countries of the region is essential because of the fundamental role that they have played in demanding that sexual and reproductive rights for children and adolescents be considered within the context of human rights. This is not limited to teaching young people about sexuality and HIV/AIDS. These organizations and networks also develop consciousness-raising activities for the general population, offer guidance in lobbying with policymakers and monitoring the implementation of public policies that protect children and adolescents, and aid in publishing information in the news media. This is work that we continue to strengthen and consolidate.

Children and adolescents should know and defend their rights. The protection and promotion of rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights, should be a fundamental basis of all national and international policies and programs aimed at children and adolescents. Society does not usually pay them the attention that they need, particularly in regard to sexual and reproductive health. For example:

* Because of their age, adolescents do not have access to appropriate information and services with regarding their sexual and reproductive rights.

* There is a lack of policies and programs that ensure that children and adolescents complete primary, secondary and tertiary education, especially in the case of pregnant adolescents and young mothers.

* Rape or sexual abuse (particularly that which is perpetrated by adult men against girls) and abuse and violence within educational institutions and recreation centers on the part of older people with authority, such as teachers and coaches.

* It is estimated that between 20 and 25% of all people living with HIV/ AIDS are young people. Girls and young women are particularly vulnerable to the HIV virus.

* There is a lack of access to support programs for teen mothers in order to keep them from being expelled from schools.


* Children and adolescents should be recognized as citizens and be free from discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race, language, social or economic status, religion, political affiliation or sexual orientation.

* The sexual and reproductive rights of children and adolescents should be recognized, respected and promoted as part of human rights.

* Children and adolescents have the right to sexual and reproductive educational programs, including curricula addressing sexuality, sex education, responsible parenthood, STI and HIV/AIDS prevention, sexual violence and gender equality.

* Access to specialized, accessible, appropriate, confidential and high-quality sexual and reproductive health services should be provided, particularly in the case of vulnerable adolescents who find themselves at a disadvantage because of factors such as poverty, race, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities, ethnicity, and geographic location.

* The information should be provided in language appropriate for the target audience.

* Children and adolescents should participate in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programs so as to ensure that they are adapted to their needs and thus more effective.

Adolescents have the right to make free choices regarding their sexuality and lives and should not be made to depend on the decisions of an older person or a partner. They have the right to develop the ability to take care of themselves and the right to have access to high-quality, accessible, friendly and respectful sexual and reproductive health services. They have the right to services that protect their privacy, confidentiality and consent; the right to participate in the design and development of sexual and reproductive health programs for children and adolescents; and the right to live in social environments that allow them to develop fully, free from any sort of discrimination.

Human Rights Watch on Women's Rights

"After the school break, my mom asked me if I wanted to go back to school. I said no. I didn't want to go. All the people who I thought were my friends had turned against me. And they [the rapists] were still there [at school]."

--W.H., age 13, gang-raped by boys from her school, quoted in Human Rights Watch report Scared at School: Sexual Violence against Girls in South African Schools.

Millions of women throughout the world suffer from abject deprivation of their fundamental human rights for no other reason than that they are women.

Combatants and their sympathizers in conflicts, such as those in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Rwanda, have raped women as a weapon of war with near complete impunity. Men in Pakistan, South Africa, Peru, Russia and Uzbekistan beat women in the home at astounding rates while these governments either refuse to intervene to protect women and punish their batterers or do so haphazardly or in other ways that make women feel responsible for the violence. As a direct result of inequalities found in their countries of origin, women from Ukraine, Moldova, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Burma and Thailand are bought and sold, trafficked to work in forced prostitution with insufficient government attention to protect their rights and punish the traffickers. In Guatemala, South Africa and Mexico, women's ability to enter and remain in the work force is obstructed by private employers who use women's reproductive status to exclude them from work and by discriminatory employment laws or discriminatory enforcement of the law. In the U.S., students discriminate against and attack girls in school who are lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered, or do not conform to male standards of female behavior. Women in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia face government-sponsored discrimination that restricts women's participation in public life and renders them unequal before the law--including discriminatory family codes that take away women's legal authority and place it in the hands of male family members.

Abuses against women are relentless, systematic and widely tolerated, if not explicitly condoned. Violence and discrimination against women are global social epidemics, notwithstanding the very real progress of the international women's human rights movement in identifying, raising awareness about, and challenging impunity for women's human rights violations.

We live in a world in which women do not have basic control over what happens to their bodies. Millions of women and girls are forced to marry and have sex with men they do not desire. Women are unable to depend on the government to protect them from physical violence in the home with sometimes fatal consequences, including increased risk of HIV/AIDS infection. Women in state custody face sexual assault by their jailers. Women are punished for having sex outside of marriage or with a person of their choosing (rather than of their family's choosing). Husbands and other male family members obstruct or dictate women's access to reproductive health care. Doctors and government officials disproportionately target women from disadvantaged or marginalized communities for coercive family planning policies.

Our duty as activists is to expose and denounce as human rights violations those practices and policies that silence and subordinate women. We reject any law, culture, or religion in which women are systematically discriminated against, excluded from political participation and public life, segregated in their daily lives, raped in armed conflict, beaten in their homes, denied equal divorce or inheritance rights, killed for having sex, forced to marry, assaulted for not conforming to gender norms, and sold into forced labor. Arguments that sustain and excuse these human rights abuses--those of cultural norms, "appropriate" rights for women, or western imperialism--barely disguise their true meaning: that women's lives matter less than men's. Cultural relativism, which argues that there are no universal human rights and that rights are culture-specific and culturally determined, is still a formidable and corrosive challenge to women's rights to equality and dignity in all facets of their lives.

The Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch fights against the dehumanization and marginalization of women. We promote women's equal rights and human dignity. The realization of women's rights is a global struggle based on universal human rights and the rule of law. It requires all of us to unite in solidarity to end traditions, practices and laws that harm women. It is a fight for freedom to be fully and completely human and equal without apology or permission. Ultimately, the struggle for women's human rights must be about making women's lives matter everywhere all the time. In practice, this means taking action to stop discrimination and violence against women.

From the website of Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw. org/women/index.php

IPPF/Youth Manifesto

Goal 1

Young people must have information and education on sexuality and the best possible sexual and reproductive health services (including contraceptives).

All young people must be able to choose from a full range of contraceptives, including the latest advances in contraception.

Sexual and reproductive health services for young people must be:

* confidential,

* accessible,

* free from judgment, and

* offer a complete range of services.

Service providers must meet the different needs of all young people, married or unmarried, whatever their age, gender, ability, beliefs and sexual lifestyle.

Sexual and reproductive health education must be accurate, reliable and responsive to the physical and emotional needs of young people of all ages and sexual lifestyles.

Young men must be encouraged to use sexual and reproductive health services which have been designed for them.

Governments and policymakers must be urged to increase their commitment to sexual and reproductive health education and services for young people.

Service providers must meet the additional needs of young people living with HIV/AIDS, survivors of sexual abuse and young sexual offenders.

Goal 2

Young people must be able to be active citizens in their society.

Young people must have real decision-making power in all work of IPPF/FPAS.

Young people must receive practical skills and knowledge so they can participate to the best of their ability in society.

The contribution of young people and the way that they present themselves must be valued and recognized in IPPF/ FPAS.

Youth groups must have direct access to funds and support.

Governments and policymakers must be urged to take action to support and promote youth participation in society.

Goal 3

Young people must be able to have pleasure and confidence in relationships and all aspects of sexuality.

Young people must be supported by laws that allow them to act freely in the way they choose to live their lives.

Obstacles that make young people uncomfortable about themselves, their bodies and their relationships must be removed.

Young people must be encouraged to know their own sexual rights and to respect the rights of others.

Young people's sexuality should have a positive image in society.

Society must recognize the right of all young people to enjoy sex and to express their sexuality in the way that they choose.

From the International Planned Parenthood website, manifesto/manifesto.htm
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Publication:Women's Health Collection
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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