On World Population Day, a startling picture for women and girls

By Renate Baehr11 July 2014

Young women and men attend a group discussion on adolescent reproductive health. Securing universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and young women is a crucial element of the post-2015 framework. Photo by: The Advocacy Project / CC BY-NC-SA

Nabajju is a young woman living in rural Uganda. While still in school, Nabajju — like many girls of her age living in low- and middle-income countries — became pregnant unexpectedly.

Unlike many girls in her situation, however, she was lucky enough to finish her education and to explore her options for a career in teaching. Her unplanned pregnancy threatened to derail any of the plans that she had made for herself. Fortunately for Nabajju, she was able to rely on the support of her parents and on the local youth center of which she is a member. At the youth center, part of the DSW Youth to Youth network of youth clubs, she was able to receive the support and investment that she needed, receiving peer-to-peer counselling — giving her the life skills, tools and confidence to move forward.

For every Nabajju, however, there are millions of girls every year who experience an unplanned pregnancy and do not receive this kind of support and investment in their future. Empowering these girls to take control of their lives and their health improves their life chances — in education, health, employment opportunities, and has hugely positive knock-on effects for their communities.

Today, on World Population Day, we must acknowledge that we are failing the 500 million girls in low- and middle-income countries. If we are to properly address the challenges they face, we need to prioritize girls and young women in international development policy and in the post-2015 framework. Ensuring that they have full access to their sexual and reproductive health and rights is a fundamental part of this challenge.

Every day, 20,000 girls under 18 just like Nabajju give birth. In total, 19 of every 100 girls living in low- and middle-income countries will give birth before they are 18. Of these, three of these 100 are under the age of 15. Childbirth is now a leading cause of death for young women aged between 15 and 19 and living in the world’s poorest countries and some 70,000 girls die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications.

With a lack of access to comprehensive sexuality education, to proper family planning advice and to affordable and effective methods of contraception, including condoms, it is no wonder that young women and girls in low- and middle-income countries also suffer disproportionately from HIV and AIDS. Indeed, HIV and AIDS are the leading cause of death and disease of women of productive age and HIV infection rates in young women remain almost twice as high as those for young men.

A startling picture

These statistics represent a startling picture of the precarious nature of the health of girls and young women. As U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin said on Thursday: “Adolescent pregnancy … is deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality, violence, child and forced marriage, power imbalances between adolescent girls and their male partners, lack of education, and the failure of systems and institutions to protect their rights.” What it makes clear is that access to universal SRHR and family planning services is essential to addressing these challenges.

Investment in meeting the family planning and SRHR needs of women can have huge implications. Access to SRHR services creates incentives for investment in education and schooling for girls, boosting their future earnings. Estimates suggest that in Kenya, for example, if all 1.6 million girls completed school and the 220,000 adolescent pregnancies were prevented, national income could increase by 10 percent. What is more, according to the Guttmacher Institute and others, every $1 spent on the provision of family planning services can save governments up to $31 on healthcare, water, education, housing and other costs.

Securing universal access to SRHR

This is where international development policy can play a role. As a first step, securing universal access to SRHR for girls and young women is a crucial element of the post-2015 framework. This is one of the key messages coming from the ICPD High Level Taskforce to the U.N. Secretary-General, of which I am a member. It is also one of the key demands of The Girl Declaration — a collaboration between development actors and girls from around the world girls that sets out the goals that they need to see in the post-2015 agenda to give them the chance to reach their full potential, of which DSW is a strong supporter. Indeed, we believe there are concrete steps we can take now to lock in investment in girls in the post-2015 framework.

There must be standalone goals for health, gender and education, which each encompass specific and measurable targets and indicators for SRHR. Including SRHR in the successors to the Millennium Development Goals would be the most effective way of ensuring that they form a key element of the new development framework. In that regard, we will continue to work together with our partners to make sure that these recommendations are heard between now and Sept. 2015.

Focusing on girls, we need to make sure that they have universal access to youth-friendly reproductive health and information services, provided with accessible services, information and products, as well as age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for both young men and women, with a focus on adolescents.

In youth groups such as the one Nabajju is a member of in Uganda, we have seen the inspirational effect that these ideas can have on young women and men. Training young people to go out and inform their peers of the risks and opportunities they face, through peer-to-peer counselling, for example, is one of the most effective ways of ensuring they have the skills and knowledge they need.

We support The Girl Declaration’s call to bring girls into the decision-making process, so that their voices are heard in key international institutions. In doing this, we can make sure that policies and funding are targeted towards what they need to take decisions into their own hands and to determine their own futures.

Through this, we can create a future where girls like Nabajju do not have to face a choice between finishing their education and having a child before they turn 18, where they are the ones who determine for themselves their lives and family planning choices. These are the messages that we will be taking to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, and for which we will continue to fight in the coming 12 months.

What more can we do to support universal access to SRHR in the post-2015 negotiations? Please let us know by sending an email to news@devex.com or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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Renate Baehr

Renate Baehr is the executive director of DSW — Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung. She has a longstanding record of successful advocacy, policy and public awareness-raising work in the fields of global health and sexual and reproductive health and rights in Germany and Europe. She played the lead role in establishing DSW’s Parliamentary Advisory Committee in 2003, regularly advises the German parliament on SRHR issues and serves as a member of the international high-level taskforce for ICPD.


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