There’s an African proverb which says “when you’re dancing in the village square, it’s the onlookers who can judge whether you’re dancing well or not.” As the UN negotiations at Rio+20 unfold this week, youth advocates will be watching the “dance” to see if sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are recognized for their contribution to sustainable development.
Eighteen years ago, 179 countries met in Cairo for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The outcome of the conference was a twenty-year Programme of Action recognizing that every person counts, and that population is not about numbers but about people and their quality of life. It was a milestone in the history of population and development, as well as in the history of women’s rights.
Just over a month ago, at the 45th Session of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development (CPD), member states issued a bold resolution in support of young people’s sexual and reproductive health and human rights.
Yet in the negotiating text of the outcome document for Rio+20, the inclusion of these rights is still uncertain. Language on family planning is hotly contested – at risk of being removed from the final draft – and SRHR issues are not mentioned at all.
If ICPD and CPD showed a commitment by world leadership to achieve a better quality of life for all, what will Rio+20 show?
At the COP 17 Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa last November, lead US negotiator Jonathan Pershing was asked about the lack of attention given to sexual and reproductive health and rights and contraceptive access in the climate negotiations. Mr. Pershing was quick to admit the importance of these services for women, communities, and the planet, but expressed doubt that they would come up formally due to the ‘controversial’ nature of the issue. “Take this to Rio” he recommended.
Along with other bloggers, organizers, young people, NGO representatives, and government officials from around the world, we will be taking these issues to Rio indeed. And we have to ask – how controversial is a woman’s right to make decisions about her health and childbearing, a right that will improve her life and that of her children, in addition to the health of her community and the sustainability of her planet?
Representatives from the Sierra Club, Advocates for Youth, The Youth Coalition, SustainUS, Population Action International, and the government of Sri Lanka agree that there should be no controversy in ensuring the health and rights of people in every community, especially young people. On June 19th, these groups will be coming together to host a side event highlighting the voices and experiences of youth from around the world in dealing with the intersection of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and sustainable development in their home communities. From Brazil to the Philippines, young leaders recognize that the ability to manage resources, participate in income-generating activities, procure water, stay healthy, and contribute to community decision making are inextricably linked to one’s access to reproductive health services.
Our planet has already hit the 7 billion mark, and the largest-ever generation of young people are worried and wondering what the older generations have been doing. We’re looking for a sustainable space where families, communities and societies can live harmoniously with the environment in a just and sustainable manner. This is not about science and numbers, but about people, their rights and the future of their great-grandchildren.
These young people aren’t the only ones who ‘get it,’ which is why Rio+20 is already shaping up to bring unprecedented attention to gender, women’s rights, and sexual and reproductive health in the context of sustainability. Dr. Carmen Barroso, head of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) Western Hemisphere Region, spoke at an event at the Woodrow Wilson Center shortly before leaving for Brazil, where she emphasized the links between IPPF’s work and that of the conservation, sustainable development, and climate communities. Dr. Barroso sees the inclusion of these themes and connections in Rio to be largely tied to youth involvement, stating that “young people are demanding their place at the table.”
Heads of state from around the world will indeed be dancing in the village square next week, and it’s up to us to judge if they’re dancing well or not. We don’t yet know if the formal negotiations in Rio will take up sexual and reproductive health and rights as they contribute to community development and sustainability. The recent announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – a champion for women’s health and rights – will be leading the US delegation is a positive sign, but does not mean the necessary attention will be given to these important human rights connections. Yet regardless of formal inclusion, the efforts of health, conservation, population, and youth organizations will ensure that SRHR issues are elevated as essential to developing a plan for a more sustainable planet in the future. If they don’t dance well, we will.
Esther Agbarakwe is an international advocacy fellow at Population Action International and Kim Lovell is the Program Director for the Sierra Club Global Population and Environment Program. Follow Esther and Kim at @estherclimate and @SCPopEnviro for updates on coverage of SRHR issues at the conference.