“The greatest challenge we have today is that we have a world that is pushing back on rights,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), at the Wilson Center.
“I have member states that tell me, ‘We just want development, not rights.’ And that is a very dangerous trend.”
Young people in developing countries are often the victims of such thinking, said a panel of experts speaking on July 10, the eve of World Population Day. There is overwhelming consensus on the importance of meeting the needs of today’s youth – the largest generation in history – but they are often considered vessels for investment rather than active participants in the development process, with unique needs and wants, said Suzanne Ehlers, president and CEO of Population Action International.
Ehlers joined Osotimehin alongside Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez, assistant administrator of global health at USAID, to highlight the sexual and reproductive rights of youth in particular.
Achieving the Demographic Dividend
The international community, the panelists agreed, has made strides in equipping young people with the tools they need to build their futures, but in many cases stopped short of empowering youth to use them.
The demographic dividend, an opportunity for economic growth based on large youth populations, can’t be achieved through population shifts alone. In order to take advantage of the lower dependency ratios (the ratio of children and older people to the working-age population) that come as population growth rates decline, young people also need to be able make decisions about their adult lives and have pathways to prosperity.
The 1.8 billion people between 10 and 24 will “define the world’s future, not only because of their numbers, but because of their aspirations and their needs,” said Osotimehin.
Osotimehin, Pablos-Méndez, and Ehlers highlighted how limits on sexual and reproductive rights among girls and young women are especially problematic for countries hoping to reap the demographic dividend.
Protecting the ability to make decisions about sexual activity as well timing, spacing, and number of births is crucial to lowering fertility rates, a prerequisite to the demographic dividend, and ensuring equal access to education and employment opportunities for women. Young women and girls who are married or become pregnant are often forced to leave school and forego jobs, and young girls can suffer from a host of health issues that reduce their ability to live safe and productive lives for years to come.
Osotimehin explained that although recent gains in girls’ enrollment in primary school are significant, in many countries, “[girls] get married off at 11 and 12 and they disappear from the statistics.” In Niger, which has the world’s highest child marriage rate at 75 percent, 63 percent of girls gain some level of primary education but only 17 percent ever make it inside a secondary school classroom, according to the UNFPA.
“We know we have this enormous human resource potential,” Ehlers said:
But if we’re not helping eradicate early forced and child marriage, and if we’re not putting comprehensive sexuality education into the schools and into communities, [and] we’re not absolutely ensuring girls are finishing secondary education so that they can go on to be a part of the labor work-force, we’re not going to have them to invest in as ‘human resource potential.’
“A Fear of Accepting Reality”
Slow progress on sexual and reproductive rights is emblematic of the development community’s failure to engage young people in general, said Ehlers. Policymakers are gripped by “a real fear of accepting reality,” she said; the reality that young people are having sex, are being married at very young ages, and are not finishing school.
This denial has caused some countries to fall short of the Millennium Development Goals on gender equality, child mortality, universal education, and maternal mortality, said Ehlers. Insecure sexual and reproductive health rights contribute to the persistence of HIV too, explained Pablos-Méndez and Osotimehin, especially among adolescent girls.
And because those populations with the least access to reproductive health services often face the largest burdens from climate change, including malnutrition, resource scarcity, and unstable livelihoods, there is a climate resilience argument to be made as well, said Ehlers:
You can talk mitigation until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t actually put women and their families, their health, and wellbeing at the center of the climate debate and [put] them as agents of change at those decision-making tables, I assure you, you will never solve the climate crisis.
“I think there’s a piece of the youth agenda, if you will, that’s about a lot of box-checking,” Ehlers said. The demand for measurable results from development non-profit organizations and donors, she continued, has tended to draw focus towards quantitative data rather than the underlying factors that shape those results, gender dynamics and reproductive rights being chief among them.
For example, Ehlers noted, the increasing number of clinic programs and health initiatives that theoretically allow young girls to obtain contraceptives has been widely celebrated, but without privacy guarantees and recognition of their right to make family planning choices on their own, many girls remain reliant on their parents’ permission, which reduces uptake.
Crafting the Next Development Framework
As the successors to the Millennium Development Goals are drafted over the next year, the panelists urged advocates and policymakers to remain “vigilant” about the language on youth.
Several organizations are already hard at work. Pablos-Méndez’s USAID colleague Ellen Starbird recently penned an article in The Lancet advocating for a new definition of family planning demand that encompasses all women who are sexually active, rather than just women who are married or partnered, as has been traditionally measured. This expanded definition, said Pablos-Mendez, should help meet the Family Planning 2020 goal of extending access to modern contraceptive methods to 120 million more women in the 69 least developed countries by 2020.
Osotimehin and Ehlers explained that they are working closely with policymakers in the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals to include sexual and reproductive health and rights under both the health and gender goals, so that the right to access and make decisions about sexual and reproductive health are delineated and clearly protected.
The panelists also stressed the need to reframe the sexual and reproductive rights of youth in terms that illuminate their relevancy across a wide range of fields, including health, education, economic development, and climate policy, and cautioned against framing a separate, isolated “youth agenda.”
Bringing Youth to the Table
Ultimately, the speakers concluded, the most effective way to incorporate young people’s sexual and reproductive rights into the next global development agenda is to actively collaborate with them in crafting it. “Youth the world over want to be agents of positive change to create a better world,” said Pablos-Méndez. “We need to empower them to do so.”
The speakers offered a range of approaches to equipping young people to shape the decision-making process. Pablos-Méndez emphasized the importance that technological innovations may play in fostering information exchange; Osotimehin called on governments to open their doors to younger policymakers; and Ehlers explained that government and non-government leaders must work directly with youth to help them contribute productively to society.
Just as youth participation is a crucial element in building a rights-centered sustainable development agenda, the agenda’s focus on rights is crucial to attracting them to the process. Young people today are more concerned with issues of social and ecological justice than ever before, said ECSP’s Roger-Mark De Souza. Their entrance into the development dialogue, then, is timely.
To effectively tackle the challenges that come with living in a warmer world, it is necessary to protect the rights of all individuals and construct, as Osotimehin explained, “a universal agenda.”
“It has nothing to do with ‘North’ or ‘South’ – it is all of us,” he said. “Climate change, renewable energy – all of those are things which we have to deal with.”
Drafted by Sarah Meyerhoff and edited by Schuyler Null
- Suzanne Ehlers
President and CEO, PAI
- Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez
Assistant Administrator, Global Health, U.S.Agency for International Development
- Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin
Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
- Roger-Mark De Souza
Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience