Pushing Abstinence-Only Education on the World
Ten years ago, at the World Summit for Children, world leaders from all around the planet came together to agree to "protect children and to diminish their suffering; to promote the fullest development of the human potential of every child; and to make them aware of their needs, their rights and their opportunities."
In a follow-up session, this May, the United Nations' set up a three-day Special Session on Children. The event was a milestone: For the first time, two young people -- Gabriela Azurdy Arrieta, a 13-year-old from Bolivia and Audrey Cheynut, 17, from Monaco -- were able to speak on behalf of youth around the world, 10 million of whom die every year from preventable diseases and 120 million of whom are not in school.
The conference's purpose was to produce a new list of goals for 2015 on everything from protecting children from war to caring for those orphaned by AIDS to ensuring that children receive measles shots. But those advocating for young people's access to reproductive health information and education are worried that the Bush administration used the conference to export conservative abstinence-only until marriage policies.
The United States teamed up with the Vatican, Sudan, Egypt and Algeria to remove language that covered abortion from draft documents, even though it applies only in countries where the practice is legal. They also erased references to teens' rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination, which the religious right considers "anti-family."
WireTap talked with two members of the International Youth Leadership Council of Advocates for Youth about their response to the session. Naina Dhingra, 20, and Sean Barry, who is also 20, had a lot to say about what it could mean for young people's right to sexual health information in the future.
What were some of the views expressed at the special session that stood out for you, both positively and negatively? Did people with differing viewpoints get a fair chance to speak, in your opinion?
Sean: While not held by all the delegates, one of the views that stood out for me was the belief that young people deserve respect. That we have a right to decide things in our lives and that we have our own unique and valid
perspectives. That sounds trite, but a lot of people seriously view young people and children merely as the property of their parents and feel that they need to be told what to do in every aspect of their life, as unrealistic and harmful as that is.
In response to the second question, there was actually a broad consensus among NGO and government delegates at the Special Session, because differences are minimized once you decide to put children first.
The small but [vocal] right-wing delegations that attended (including the official U.S. delegation), however, were responsible for most of the divisiveness during the conference. In fact, the extreme right wing had a voice in the proceedings out of proportion to their size. Not only were their voices heard, [they] drowned out everyone else's. While I think everyone should have a chance to give their opinion, the extreme right wing had more than their fair chance to speak and actually undermined the conference because of their determination to insert their ideology -- which didn't serve the interests of children and young people -- into the outcome document.
Naina: The fact that the United States has teamed up with the Vatican and oppressive governments such as Libya and Sudan to make sure that young people are told only that sex is bad and they shouldn't do it is extremely alarming. Luckily, the European countries have been very vocal in their opposition. But the United States is a very powerful voice and usually gets what it wants.
What do you think the impact of the session will be? Do you feel more positively or negatively about it?
Naina: I think that the outcome document will be disappointing in how it talks -- or rather doesn't talk -- about adolescent sexual and reproductive health. It will give countries like the U.S. ammunition to further promote these policies. I'm extremely discouraged at what's been happening, particularly how my country is responsible for undermining some of the good work that had gone into the [draft of the] document.
Sean: I don't think the outcome of the session is as [bad] as it could have been, [but] I [wish I could say] that we took a big step forward instead of just saying we merely avoided a big step backwards. We missed a big opportunity to improve the lives of children and young people. So, of course, I'm a little negative about the outcome. The official U.S. delegation, which didn't represent the majority of Americans, intimidated many of the other government delegates at the Special Session into making concessions that may roll back adolescent sexual and reproductive health rights.
That's not just bad for young people in America, that hurts young people around the world.
Naina: Our world is globalizing: What happens to young people in Africa and India affects young people in America.
The Bush administration seems to be trying to export its puritanical policies to other nations. Tell us more about how they're doing that.
Naina: The United States teamed up with some strange allies to promote its abstinence-only policy at the U.N. Session on Children in New York.
Several Islamic countries such as Libya and Sudan, joined by the Vatican, and the United States have joined together to demand removal of certain language such as "access to reproductive health services" from the final document that will come out of this conference. The U.S. is promoting abstinence as the only [type of] sexuality education, which is just a clear sign of a developed western nation attempting to impose its view on developing countries. In places where girls are married in their early teens and in the age of HIV/AIDS, imposing this policy is deadly.
Sean: Even though the majority of the world's governments don't support this position, the Administration's delegation put a lot of pressure on countries to accept language in the [final] document that framed abstinence [as the only option].
Countries and advocates develop policies [based] on the content in documents like the one that came out of the Special Session. They're extremely important for young people's lives. The U.S., however, decided to appease a small right-wing minority in this country by hijacking the conference and pushing language supporting ineffective sexual and reproductive health policies.
There are unbelievable numbers of unwanted pregnancies and new cases of STI's and HIV each year among young people; the Bush administration wants us to battle them in the dark without all the available information about how to prevent them. The Bush administration says that abstinence is our only option when they know that many young people are sexually active. Our generation is on fire with the reality of AIDS, For many young people in coercive relationships, abstinence isn't even an option. [The Bush administration's support of abstinence-only sex education] means they're supporting polices that are killing young people in my generation.
Every day over 7,000 young people become HIV positive. I'm outraged that anyone would want to respond by pushing a sexual health program like abstinence-only that could actually result in more infections. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are unscientific and biased and they keep information from young people. Ideology can't stop the spread of AIDS. The only way to stop the pandemic is by empowering young people to make informed choices and guaranteeing access to the services they need to be healthy.
How did you get involved with youth reproductive issues and Advocates for Youth?
Naina: I became involved with youth sexual and reproductive health issues in high school when our school's sexuality curriculum was threatened. I had extremely comprehensive sexuality education because of a health teacher who believed that young people deserve access to information about contraception and sexuality. It was so thorough that I almost took it for granted until a very small group of parents became vocal and wanted to change the curriculum to abstinence-only when I was a sophomore in high school. I thought that was absurd, [so] that was how I first became active in promoting comprehensive sexuality education. Oh, and they never won either. The sex ed in my high school keeps getting better [and] includes things like tolerance and diversity.
Sean: I approached reproductive health issues from two angles. First, I was an AIDS activist and recognized the central importance of supporting young people's sexual and reproductive health in stopping the pandemic. Second, I had a lot of friends who dropped out or stumbled through school as they or their girlfriends became pregnant, partially as a result of ineffective or non-existent sexuality education growing up.
When I was 18, I had the opportunity to go to South Africa and work with youth groups there [and] research the impact of AIDS in the country. A couple of months after I got back, [I learned] about a new project Advocates for Youth was sponsoring -- the International Youth Leadership Council. I've been involved for two years now. Our mission is to educate the public, media and policymakers about the importance of international family planning for young people and the impact of AIDS on our generation.
Naina: The Youth Council has also launched a campaign called "My Voice Counts," [which] is a petition drive to [persuade] President Bush to increase funding for global AIDS prevention, and last year at the U.N. Session on AIDS we planned a protest about the lack of young people on official delegations. We have young people at the U.N. Children's Summit right now, and we also lobby Congress and do media work.
If you could only get one point across to young people in this interview, what would you most want them to understand -- (i.e.: What's the most crucial issue affecting young people's reproductive health?)
Sean: For me, the most crucial issue facing young people's reproductive health is [a general] lack of information and confidence. We need to [have] information to make healthy choices. If someone decides to have sex, they should be [confident enough] to insist on using a condom in an equal relationship [in which] they're respected, and if someone wants to remain abstinent, they should feel comfortable enough to make that choice also.
We need to feel like our lives are important and that there are things worth waking up and fighting for, and that we value [those things] enough to make responsible decisions about our sexual health. But again, it all relates back to young people having access to information and services and being respected to make informed decisions for themselves.
Young people don't get anything in our society without demanding it. In a world of AIDS and high-rates of STIs, we should be demanding that young people have access to information and services crucial to our sexual and reproductive health. We need to be politically active, even if that only means occasionally making a phone-call to a politician to express an opinion on abstinence-only policies or funding to fight global AIDS.
Naina I think that young people everywhere have to start demanding access to comprehensive, medically accurate information as a right! We've got to look at what's at stake because of the AIDS pandemic. Fifty percent of new HIV infections [occur in] young people. Our generation is [being] decimated around the world, and our supposed leaders are putting politics before saving our lives.
For more information on how to become involved in the International Youth Leadership Council or other similar campaigns, visit the Advocates for Youth website.