The Policy paper that we are launching today deals with key issues that impact on the lives and well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Indeed, issues central to addressing the most pressing global development challenges facing the world today. The decisions that the international community makes in the next few years are crucial for not only building a better world today, but for creating a better future for our children and grandchildren. So, it is with strong conviction in the recommendations within this Policy Paper that I address this distinguished audience.
As Ishita, my fellow ICPD Task Force Member, has so eloquently shared, one of our top priorities in the Task Force is to ensure that all young people receive quality, comprehensive sexuality education. You heard clearly from her: this is a call to action that comes from youth leaders and many others around the world, from every region, culture and background. They demand it, based on their own experiences. They know that the younger generations after them, will pay dearly if we fail to give it to them.
As a mother of 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls, I want them to grow up with values and attitudes of: equality between girls and boys, women and men; human rights, respect and tolerance for all individuals, regardless of their background and status.
I want them to embrace diversity. I want them to reject intolerance and violence. And I want them to know that they have the right to decide over their own bodies and that they have control over decisions regarding their sexuality. I want them to be able to make informed and responsible decisions – and this requires knowledge.
In my country, sexuality education has been compulsory for decades. Adolescents can access sexual and reproductive services, including contraceptives, without stigma or fear of oppressive social taboos. They learn about diversity, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
Unhealthy and distorted norms about sexuality and gender only leads to ignorance and harm. With sexuality education, comes the ability to make informed decisions. It gives our youth a better chance of growing up safer and healthier, equipped to enter their sexual and reproductive lives with the right skills and knowledge to navigate the complexities of growing up in today’s world.
I would like to focus now on another grave global challenge and another major concern of the High-Level Task Force: reducing maternal mortality and morbidity. Here, let me stress the importance of investing in young people, and adolescent girls in particular. Maternal mortality is the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in many countries.
Limited access to comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents are major underlying factors. As is early and forced marriage, violence and sexual assault – all constitute serious violations of the human rights of girls and women. Maternal mortality is a cruel manifestation of how poverty and entrenched gender discrimination and inequalities put the lives of women and girls at risk.
While we are here, talking about this issue, 800 women and girls will have died by the time the day is over. As we know, the overwhelming majority of these needless deaths are entirely avoidable. We can end maternal mortality and morbidity as a public health problem. We have the know-how and cost-effective solutions are available. However, this can only be achieved by placing the human rights of women and girls at the centre. By tackling poverty and the underlying social, cultural, political, legal and financial barriers that prevent access to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
A holistic, rights-based approach to maternal mortality reduction must include the full range of maternal health care services; but it must go beyond that. No woman should be forced to risk her life undergoing an unsafe abortion, and it must address gender-based violence – we need to face the often horribly neglected issue of abuse during pregnancy. This form of abuse affects as many as 1 in 4 women, and the violence is often kicks and punches directed at the woman’s abdomen. The consequences for women’s and newborn health are severe and many, including; injuries, depression, suicidal risks, premature labour, miscarriage and low birth-weight.
Fortunately, we have today a dedicated Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and leading global initiatives in the world such as; the Secretary-General’s Every Woman, Every Child, and next month’s Women Deliver Conference focusing on improving maternal health. But where is violence against women, including abuse during pregnancy, on the international radar? Are health providers being made aware and trained to detect violence and abuse when a pregnant woman visits for a prenatal check-up?
We challenge all maternal health policies and sexual and reproductive health programmes, to do more in addressing violence against women and girls in every country. And attention must be directed towards violence against young women in particular: in my country, 6.5 percent of young women under the age of 24 experience violence from an intimate partner. That is too many.
Together, let us be ambitious in shaping new generations free of violence. Generations freed by knowledge, empowerment and equality.
Thank you for your attention.