This week, youth advocates from around the world are in New York for the Commission in Population and Development, the United Nations’ annual meeting on development, health and rights. This year’s meeting is focused on adolescents and youth, and these young advocates are in town to ensure that governments uphold prior commitments to advancing the sexual and reproductive rights and health of all. We sat down with Thomas Alberts, a college student from Utah and Stefanie Suclupe, a young nurse from Peru, to find out what’s at stake—at the UN and beyond—when it comes to young people and sex.
Stefanie: In Peru, young people face many barriers to accessing health services, and violations of their sexual and reproductive rights. Take comprehensive sexuality education for example. Where sexuality education programs exist, they are typically taught in religion classes where sex is only discussed in the context of matrimony and reproduction.
Thomas: In Utah, they call the classes sex education classes, they teach the basics about body parts and things like that. But when you get down to it, there’s always this subtle religious undertone that’s being pushed: only have sex within marriage, if you ever have sex outside of marriage, it’s bad. They don’t ever talk about sexual orientation, they don’t ever talk about condoms except to say that they can break. In my community it can be hard to be an advocate, but even so, I know that I am at least reaching a few people with information they need about the HPV vaccine, about contraception, other information they really would not get it otherwise. Not in their churches, not from their families not in their schools. So I really feel good about what I’m doing and I feel like I’m making a difference.
Stefanie: What amazes me in Peru is that even though issues surrounding sex and sexuality have evolved over time—the rising number of HIV infections in youth for one—the challenges remain the same. For example, when I was 14, 15 years old, I knew that to go to a health center to ask for information or receive health services, I needed to be accompanied by my parents. Now, as a nurse and sexual and reproductive health provider, the exact same thing is true. The legal framework and the laws have not progressed. When teens come to my office for a consultation, they say but I have to come with my parents to request counseling, I have to ask for their consent to get condoms—that’s what I heard on the radio, at school, from teachers. As health care providers, we always respect the confidentiality and autonomy of our clients to make their own decisions. But if young people hear that health providers will tell their parents, that’s what really matters.
Thomas: When I was in high school, I was scared to death to go into a doctor’s office, because I’d be afraid they’d like tell my parents. And it wasn’t even because of the laws, I had no idea what the laws were then,it was more the cultural atmosphere. In Utah, there’s an atmosphere where everybody tattles on everybody else. I had one friend of mine going to another university who just stopped going to church. Her roommates responded by calling her parents and her bishop and telling them that she wasn’t going to church. So you can see how hard it would be for people when they want to ask questions, even when they want to get information, they’re afraid to try because they’re afraid that somebody’s going to see them and spread it around. Then they get ostracized, they get shamed by their community and that’s awful because everybody needs their family and everybody needs their community.
Stefanie: In Peru, there’s also there’s a lot of judgment towards young people when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. The clinic is open to everyone during the same hours. If I’m 14 and I want to get contraception, I know that probably my neighbor, my aunt, even my mom and dad might see me. This is especially true in rural areas. And, there is a law in Peru criminalizing consensual sex between minors, there’s even more fear, even more judgment. That’s what strikes me about the Commission on Population and Development. Peru, like other nations, is here to talk about development, but how can we develop Peru when teen pregnancy rates are increasing, if the maternal mortality rate among teens is increasing, if the number of unsafe abortions is increasing. How can we talk about development at a political level when we don’t listen to the reality and needs of youth on the ground? If governments listen to the voices of young people and reflect their needs at the political level, we will certainly see advancements in development – not only in Peru, but worldwide. Right now, we have the largest population of young people ever —this is the moment for change.
Thomas: I think things are kind of changing in Utah—you know there were some really harsh anti sex education bills that came up in the state legislature lately, and our governor vetoed them. And the official position of the Mormon church has become more liberal, they now say women should be educated, gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against in housing or employment, and I’ve met a lot of Mormons who are very liberal in their views on sexual education and can talk about it. And now, I’m noticing a lot of parents are a lot more liberal in their views People who are younger than me that I’ve met can actually talk to their parents about sex education and STIs and about what they need to do to be responsible, even in religious households. So things are changing and it’s starting to get better. But I would add that in order for things to continue to get better, we need more advocates fighting for sexual and reproductive rights.
Stefanie: I’m noticing more youth participation at the UN level and in Peru. As young people, we have to increase this participation to motivate more young people to be involved in this process. If we don’t speak, if we don’t act, if we don’t demand our involvement in the policies that affect us, then we won’t move forward. Don’t be afraid to speak up and make demands.
Thomas: I would encourage young people from around the world, especially those living in more religious communities, to not be afraid, because things do change over time. If you don’t speak out, if you don’t stand up, you’re making it harder for somebody else.
Stefanie is a registered nurse currently working for the Ministry of Health in the remote Peruvian jungle. A participant in the International Planned Parenthood/Western Hemisphere Region’s (IPPFWHR) youth advocacy program, Stefanie advocates at the United Nations and in Peru for youth health and rights, and is a board member for IPPFWHR Member Association INPPARES.
Thomas is student at Weber State University in Utah where he runs the local Planned Parenthood VOX chapter. Thomas attended the Commission on Population and Development as part of Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Global Youth Advocacy Fellowship, a program that brings young advocates from across the U.S. to international meetings and to learn about global sexual and reproductive health issues and design local advocacy campaigns connecting U.S. and international issues in their own communities.