Investing in Young Women’s Leadership in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights

12 July 2011
Author: UNFPA

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If you were born before 1967, you’ve seen world population double.

As our population approaches 7 billion, every person should be able to enjoy human rights and human dignity.

Every person should have the opportunity to make the most of his or her potential.

These universal principles underpin the work of the United Nations, and they underpin the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development.

At this Conference 179 governments agreed that every person has the right to sexual and reproductive health.

The right to sexual and reproductive health is essential to women’s empowerment, gender equality, and sustainable development.

This is a right that we are all standing up for!

It is my pleasure to address the International Women’s Summit as the Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

I would like to thank the General Secretary of the World YWCA, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, for inviting me here and bringing all of us together!

UNFPA is proud to be a strong partner with the World YWCA to create safe spaces for women.

We are proud to partner with the World YWCA to support young women leaders.

We salute all the good work being done in countries around the world to promote the rights of girls and women.

Through community-based programmes and services, YWCAs are making a difference in the lives of girls and women and their families.

I have been asked to speak about Investing in Young Women’s Leadership in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights.

I see a lot of young women here. I applaud your leadership.

We have made much progress since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, thanks to many of you in this room.

But we still have a long way to go to achieve universal access to reproductive health and to realize reproductive rights for all.

We still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality and women’s full participation in leadership!

As I speak, too many young women continue to face discrimination, coercion and violence in making decisions about their lives and about reproduction.

Too many women cannot exercise their right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.

Too many girls and young women report that their first sexual encounter was forced.

Too many girls and women are subjected to violence.

Adolescent girls and young women are particularly vulnerable.

Worldwide, there are 600 million adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 19, and 500 million of them live in the developing world.

Every year, 16 million adolescent girls become mothers.

If present trends continue, an additional 100 million girls are expected to marry in the next decade. That's 25,000 girls married each day.

Early marriage disrupts their education, stifles their opportunities and perpetuates poverty. And it results in early childbearing that puts girls’ lives at risk.

Today, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in Africa and South Asia among adolescent girls 15 to 19 years-old.

Today, about 40 percent of new HIV infections are among young people aged 15 to 24. And adolescent girls and young women are particularly vulnerable.

Yet only 40 percent of young men and 38 percent of young women have accurate knowledge about HIV transmission.

And too many young women die from unsafe abortions.

My friends,

We can no longer afford to shy away from these realities.

Just as no woman or girl should die during pregnancy and childbirth, no woman or girl should die from unsafe abortion.

The best way to reduce recourse to abortion is to provide comprehensive sexuality education and family planning.

Family planning, as part of comprehensive reproductive health services saves lives, enhances women's life options, and reduces poverty.

Yet during the past decade, progress has stalled in most parts of the world in reducing adolescent birth rates and meeting unmet need for family planning.

Those being left behind include adolescent girls, women in rural areas, those with little education, and those from the poorest households.

As we move forward, we need to promote human rights, equity and focus on reaching those who are vulnerable.

Under my leadership, UNFPA will give adolescent girls and young women the attention they deserve.

We will listen to and support the participation of adolescent girls and young women. We will push for greater investments in young people, especially adolescent girls.

We will advocate greater investment in education, including age-appropriate sexuality education, and comprehensive reproductive health services, including family planning.

We will advocate employment and social participation. Indeed as the world seeks to establish a global green economy, young people must be positioned to be enterpreneurs and leaders of innovation.

We will support the empowerment and leadership of adolescent girls and young women.

And we will do our work in a spirit of collaboration, inclusiveness and partnership.

At UNFPA, we know that investing in the leadership of young women is essential to social change now and in the future.

We know that investing in young women’s leadership is vital for advancing the right to sexual and reproductive health!

I want to tell you a short story about a girl from Jamaica, Antoinette Sykes.

When Antoinette was 15 years old, she found herself pregnant. In Jamaica, when a girl becomes pregnant, she is expelled from school and often abandoned by her peers and family.

In her time of distress, Antoinette turned to the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation that provided her with continued education, counseling and skills training. The Women’s Centre taught Antoinette how to be a good mother and how to take care of herself.

Today, Antoinette works at the Centre and shares her story with the young girls who come in for support. These girls are often frightened and demoralized, but Antoinette extends compassion and understanding, encourages them, and builds their confidence and self-esteem.

Antoinette is a young woman who has become a leader in sexual and reproductive health.

UNFPA is proud to partner with organizations, including the World YWCA, in building up young women to become leaders for their generation.

UNFPA is also proud to be a partner of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Adolescent Girls. Through this forum, UNFPA works with governments, civil society and communities to:

  • Educate adolescent girls;
  • Improve adolescent girls’ health;
  • Keep them free from violence;
  • Promote adolescent girl leaders; and
  • Count girls in data efforts so we can see and measure the difference being made in their lives.

I believe that adolescent girls are the unexpected solution to many of the world’s most pressing problems, provided we join efforts to unleash their power and potential.

Empowering girls today means a better tomorrow for all of us.

Imagine the difference one girl can make. Educated, healthy and skilled, she will be an active citizen in her community.

She will become a mother when she is ready and invest in her future children’s health and education. She will be able to contribute fully to her society and break the cycle of poverty.

Multiply this by 500 million girls in the developing world and imagine the possibilities.

We must act now before it is too late.

Investing in young people, reproductive health and gender equality can speed up countries’ economic growth and improve prospects for sustainable development.

This is the message that I will carry forward:

  • This month in New York at the International Youth Conference;
  • In September at the General Assembly;
  • In the lead-up to next year’s Rio+20 meeting on sustainable development; and
  • In preparations for ICPD at 20.

As we look ahead, let us support young women’s leadership in sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

Let us make sure that laws and policies are in place to promote young women’s rights to information and education about sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

Let us reinforce these laws and policies by mobilizing necessary resources and demanding accountability.

Let us ensure that young women themselves become agents of change by providing safe spaces where they can discuss issues and ideas, and identify ways to overcome challenges.

Let us use our expertise and experience to eliminate violence against women, fight HIV/AIDS and stand up for the right to sexual and reproductive health.

Let us promote public awareness about the benefits of young women becoming leaders. When young women can contribute fully, families, communities and nations are stronger.

Let us support networks of young women.

And let us also reach out to boys and men.

I will use my leadership to call on my fellow men to “man up!”

Being a real man means saying NO to gender-based violence and respecting the rights of women as equals.

Together, we need to keep pushing to make the right to sexual and reproductive health a priority.

We need to keep pushing to make universal access to reproductive health a reality.

And to make greater progress, we need to invest more in young women so all of you here and others like you can lead the way forward.

I thank you.

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Statement of the Executive Director to the High-Level Segment of the Human Rights Council





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