Fifty-sixth Session,
4th Meeting (AM)

Lack of Access to Sexual, Reproductive Health Education and Rights Results in Harmful Practices, Impedes Sustainable Development, Speakers Tell Population Commission

Deprivation of access to education on sexual and reproductive health and rights results in a range of harmful practices — such as early and child marriages, unwanted pregnancies and high levels of gender-based violence — which have an enormous adverse effect on sustainable development, speakers stressed today, as the Commission on Population and Development continued its fifty-sixth session.

The Commission held a general debate as well as a panel discussion, focusing on the contribution of key population and development issues to the main theme of the Economic and Social Council — accelerating the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at all levels.

Moderated by Sylvia Paola Mendoza (Mexico), Vice-Chair-designate of the Commission on Population and Development, the panel discussion featured:  Maria del Carmen Squeff (Argentina), Vice-Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women; Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett (Guyana); Ana Mosiashvili, youth advocate from Georgia and International Coordinator at the Youth Peer Education Network Programme of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); Seema Bansal, Director and Lead of the Social Impact Practice at the Boston Consulting Group in India; and Siswanto Wilopo, Director of the Center for Reproductive Health at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia.

Ms. Squeff highlighted the relevance of the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action and the 2030 Agenda to achieving gender equality.  Not only do they recommend actions, but Member States have committed to specific actions through these two instruments, she pointed out.  The Programme of Action was the result of a broad international consensus, she noted, spotlighting its definition of health and sexual reproductive rights, based on respect for human rights of women and girls.  Only with universal access to health and the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to physical autonomy, can the international community achieve the objective of guaranteeing that nobody is left behind.  Further, the 2030 Agenda establishes in its preamble that one of its aims is to achieve human rights for all and gender equality, she said, adding that “this is a cross-cutting and essential lynchpin”.

Turning to her country’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda, she said the Government is ensuring that a gender perspective is integrated into both the public and private spheres.  Education is a key driver of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls since it gives them the ability to take informed decisions about their own lives.  It reduces the risks of experiencing other forms of violence and exploitation and it increases their participation in communities and societies, she noted.  Further, education helps to combat gender stereotypes and norms which prevent women and girls from achieving their maximum potential.  Evidence shows that education is even more beneficial when boys, girls and teenagers have access to sexual education, she said, calling on the international community to tackle global crises with global solutions.  “Integration and interrelation is never easy,” she said, stressing the need for “passageways” linking various bodies of the United Nations.

Ms. Rodrigues-Birket outlined several challenges faced by small island developing States in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, such as their vulnerability to climate change, the lack of adequate and predictable financing, remoteness from markets and limited resources.  While not a small island, Guyana is a low-lying State and faces a similar reality, with its capital city lying below sea-level.  Against this backdrop, Guyana developed a low carbon development strategy in 2009, she recalled, noting that her country — the second most forested per capita — benefits from the sale of carbon credits.  A portion of this goes directly to Indigenous communities whose titled land comprises 14 per cent of Guyana’s territory. 

On the provision of water and sanitation, she said that her Government continues to improve the infrastructure for providing equitable access to safe water, including in Indigenous communities.  The high cost of energy makes Guyana less competitive on the global market, she observed, pointing to projects such as a hydro-power facility and solar farms.  Turning to agriculture, she detailed her Government’s investments in farm-to-market road initiatives, in addition to providing farmers with capacity-building and new technology.  Guyana has seen reduction in the ratio of urban population to total population due to its country-wide housing programme aimed at developing new housing areas and improving access to finance for low-income earners.  This has also led to a reduction in rural-urban migration and accelerated development in rural areas.  Stressing that international financial architecture reform is paramount, she highlighted the importance of the Sustainable Development Summit for small island developing States.

Ms. Mosiashvili, emphasizing that sexual and reproductive education is essential to population and development, shared her personal story of becoming an advocate for those rights as an adolescent girl 12 years ago.  “I'm coming from Georgia, a small Eastern European country where restrictive gender stereotypes are still quite present,” she said, adding that at school she did not get the chance to learn about topics crucial to health and well-being.  It was only through out-of-school educational activities that she received such information.  Recalling the first time she joined such an activity, she said she felt empowered but also disappointed.  Despite being a primary platform for education and empowerment, school did not provide her and her peers with life skills and information that would help them to be more resilient and to have more agency.  “That was the turning point for me to become a youth advocate,” she said.

 As she expanded her activism in the field, she said, she realized the problem was much bigger and extended to millions of young people worldwide.  Detailing the effects of deprivation of access to education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, she stressed that peer education is one of the most effective forms of out-of-school education and young peer educators need more recognition, support and spaces.  “Nothing about us without us,” she said, urging decision-makers to provide access to comprehensive sexual education to every young person everywhere.  These efforts should be as inclusive as possible, she said, adding that 1.8 billion young people around the world represent 1.8 billion unique experiences.

Ms. Bansal, differentiating between school enrolment and school completion, said that in most developing countries — including India — enrolment is quite high, especially in primary grades, with enrolment rates at 95 per cent.  “The challenge is not getting the children into school but about keeping them there,” she underscored, pointing to a significant drop-out rate by the time they are 10 or 11 years old.  Another challenge is out-of-pocket expenses associated with the fact that many parents prefer to send their children to private schools.  She further emphasized that the recruitment of local, community teachers — especially in early grades — leads to better learning outcomes.  English is not necessarily familiar to students, she said, noting that outcomes are better when early stages of learning are held in local languages.

Stressing the need to focus on early childhood education and foundational learning, she urged for pronged investments in teaching staff’s skills, motivation and accountability.  Along with this, building a cadre of education leaders and revamping secondary education from an employment perspective are critical factors.  To this end, economic linkages with school education must be established.  Calling for device availability in terms of access to relevant content and guidance, she said that technology investments pay off more when directed to teachers.  She also underlined that the power of a positive physical and social-emotional environment for a student cannot be downplayed.

Dr. Wilopo said that political leaders should commit to strong policy and legal frameworks to advance population and family planning.  The ownership of planning should belong to all sectors in the country, he stressed, adding that States should have sufficient funds to run such programmes.  Underscoring the importance of routine monitoring and supervision of the population and family planning programmes, he said that community acceptance and participation is a must.  Moreover, Governments must work with religious leaders and faith organizations.  Sexual and reproductive education provides people with toolkits of “knowledge, attitude and skill” that will enable them to advocate for their health and dignity.  As a result, they can enjoy fulfilling and healthy relationships and protect themselves and their partners against ill-health, violence and unwanted pregnancy.

Calling on the international community to prioritize investment in adolescents, he highlighted the importance of the International Conference on Population and Development’s Programme of Action in accelerating post-pandemic recovery and full implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  Rather than focusing on numerical population targets, that instrument firmly established the rights of individuals to realize their own fertility goals.  Achieving universal access to reproductive health by 2030 requires monitoring key family planning indicators, he said, adding that the international community has all the know-how it requires to meet sexual and reproductive health needs.  “What we are missing is not knowledge and commitment but resources,” he stressed.

When the floor opened for discussion, several delegates highlighted challenges in terms of intersectionality of the Sustainable Development Goals, with the representative of Honduras drawing attention to the issue of teenage pregnancies and asking about positive experiences in other regions which could be compared to the realities in her country.

The representative of Cuba, noting the fundamental importance of inclusive, free and universal education, inquired about the achievability of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and the possibility of selecting a few, given the time constraint.

The representative of the Russian Federation observed that comprehensive sexuality education is oftentimes presented as a key element in solving demographic issues.  Against this backdrop, he expressed concern about negative side effects that occur when this methodology is implemented, such as diagnosis of gender dysmorphia among adolescents.  He asked how carefully the negative side-effects of these methodologies are being examined before they are implemented by the United Nations bodies.

The representative of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), noting that the pandemic highlighted the need for robust population data, asked whether matters related to strengthening civil registration and vital statistics systems should be brought to the attention of the 2023 session of the high-level political forum on sustainable development.

Responding, Ms. SQUEFF recalled how Governments had to fight the taboos around vaccinations during the pandemic and said that was an example of public education and mobilization.  Argentina’s policymakers work in partnership with civil society, she said, adding that “we are a country of mobilization.”  She highlighted a 2006 law on comprehensive sexual education and others, including on abortion and marriage equality, all of which were rooted in civil society participation.

Ms. Rodrigues-Birkett, responding to the question of whether the international community will achieve the 2030 Agenda by the 2030 target year, said “the short answer is no.”  Noting that all the Goals are interlinked and it is hard to select some over others to focus on, she said individual countries are probably selecting their priorities.  The international community was already lagging in areas such as food security even before the pandemic, she pointed out, adding that her country and other developing nations need adequate and predictable financing to achieve the Goals.

Mr. Wilopo, stressing that the global health architecture needs to be rebuilt, called on countries to focus on strengthening primary health.  This will be crucial for coping with pandemics as well as enabling sexual and reproductive health.  Recalling that policymakers in his country used to be allergic to the word “sexual”, he said now the Government has taken some selective but promising steps towards sexual and reproductive health education.  It is also essential to educate parents on sexual and reproductive rights, he added. 

Ms. Mosiashvili said that it is crucial to analyse what the international community learned from the pandemic.  Crisis moments can catalyse priorities, she said, adding “we do not have the right to be pessimistic about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”  Policymakers must give hope to young people in that regard, she said, acknowledging that after 2030, the world will continue to work on the next phase of those Goals.

Ms. Bansal said it is critical to measure and take stock of where the world is concerning the Sustainable Development Goals.  Noting how technology shaped education during the pandemic, she said that students and teachers in rural areas in her country found ways to continue learning using technology.  Also pointing to the role of private sector innovation, she said it is essential to create global public goods in a far more structured manner.

The representatives of Serbia, Egypt and Ghana also spoke during the interactive dialogue, as did a civil society speaker from Soroptimist International.

The Commission on Population and Development will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 12 April, to continue its work.

For information media. Not an official record.