Tuesday marked day two of a week long conference on “Adolescents and Youth” held by the UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD). While the conference is supposed to address a wide range of topics related to population, development and youth, it has focused almost exclusively on promoting the sexual and reproductive rights of youth, comprehensive sexual education, and provoking fear among countries about the burgeoning youth population in underdeveloped regions like sub-Saharan Africa.
Frankly, even though the theme of the conference is “Adolescents and Youth”, anyone listening to country statements or reviewing the outcome document currently being negotiated would never know it. A more accurate theme for the conference would read, “The Sexual Rights of Youth and Overpopulation.”
Besides the fact that the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights often includes abortion or that the promotion of comprehensive sexual education is controversial because of its disturbing curriculum, the real problem is that the UN’s obsession with sex and sexualizing youth means that important development issues for youth like education, unemployment and health care have been ignored.
In an important UN document on the “right to development” it states:
States should undertake, at the national level, all necessary measures for the realization of the right to development and shall ensure, inter alia, equality of opportunity for all in their access to basic resources, education, health services, food, housing, employment and the fair distribution of income.
And yet, such language is almost entirely absent in the draft document being discussed at the conference. Instead, the document currently contains over 83 different references to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights as well 27 references to abortion, far outweighing any references to the real development concerns of youth previously mentioned. Most of these references have been proposed and supported by countries like the U.S. and Norway along with other “like minded countries” generally coming from Europe, but not excluding countries like Uruguay and Argentina.
Not all of the ideas being promoted at the conference are bad, however. Some of them are extremely good. Delegations from the Holy See, Swaziland, Egypt and Iran, for example, have expressed their concern about the absurd obsession with the “sexual rights of youth” at the conference and the way in which it is detracting attention from the real issues at hand. They have also proposed language that,
“affirms that investment in youth development and education is crucial for sustainable social and economic development”
and that recognizes
“that the majority of the world’s youth live in developing countries and that development constraints pose additional challenges to youth owing to their limited access to resources, education and training, health care, employment and broader socio-economic development opportunities”
Unfortunately, addressing these concerns in a real way within the document seems to be falling on deaf ears thanks to the louder voices and consensus being built by other more influential states.
Frustrated by this lack of support and total disregard for the real issues facing youth, one delegation from the Americas spoke up during negotiations and stated what many countries were thinking but were not willing to say themselves: “These are not sexual and reproductive rights! They are sexual and reproductive wrongs!”
Why all the promotion of sexual rights for youth? Well, with the world’s population of youth now exceeding 1.8 billion, and with most of the growth occurring in lesser developed regions like sub-Saharan Africa where access to education and employment is limited, it is assumed that providing youth with access to sexual services like contraception and abortion will decrease population growth and allow countries to make better use of their available resources. That’s right, for the UN and organizations like the UNFPA the best way to address unemployment, increase access to education, and encourage sustainable development is to encourage the sexual activity of youth while making sure they don’t have children. The less people, the more resources to go around, according to their logic — something known as the “demographic dividend“. On the other hand, the promotion of economic growth or finding ways to increase and invest things like education, better health care, and infrastructure would take too much first world funding and support.
This is why the UNFPA teams up with organizations like IPPF who are doing their best to ensure that language in the outcome document will promote youth as independent actors and undermine the rights of parents to educate their children about things like sexuality. These organizations fear that if parents get involved in the lives of their children, they might maintain values inconsistent with the UN consensus and decide not to refrain from sex or, if they do have sex and become pregnant or even get married, take their children to term. As a result, the IPPF is labeling parents as “obstacles” and is working with countries to include language that marginalizes their role the in the development of their own children at the conference. The end game, no matter how you look at it, is to eradicate the poor and to keep their populations down through increasing youth access to reproductive health services.
Interestingly, this is also why many countries promoting sexual and reproductive rights for youth are also supportive of defining youth as independent actors, separate from their parents. If youth can act on their own and also have inalienable “sexual rights” these countries believe they will choose to have sex and to do so without having children. More importantly, they will not need the help of their parents or their “culture” in determining what is good for their health or their lives. Sadly enough, this has created an environment at the UN where there is no agreed upon definition of what defines youth or adolescents because the assumption is that they are already “adult” enough to make decisions on their own, however unreasonable that really is in practice.
Given just how contentious negotiations have been, it is unlikely that consensus will be reached by the deadline on Thursday evening. Some countries have already expressed concern that this means the chairman of the negotiations, a Swiss delegate, will take it upon himself to finalize the text and submit it to the commission on his own, something known as a “chairman’s text”. Obviously, the worry is that the final text submitted would still contain controversial language and not reflect the serious concerns of countries that would rather have a document free of the “sexual and reproductive rights” agenda and focusing on development.