Global accountability spaces and youth engagement: experiences in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.
“Young people are, and will be, the drivers of innovation, the defenders of human rights, and ultimately the leaders of the global development agenda. While we comprise the largest generation of young people in human history, we are more than a demographic dividend. We are diverse, we are at different stages in our journey to adulthood, and we are subject to different forms of discrimination that stifle our growth. However, we are not voiceless and we are empowering ourselves to make our voices heard and to claim our human rights.”
This was a portion of the statement I delivered on behalf of the Sexual Rights Initiative and youth-led organisations at the Human Rights Council in Geneva (HRC34) on March 6, regarding the Rights of the Child resolution. Although the entirety of the statement was directed towards Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), it is still fair to conclude that the statement hits home and reflects on a personal level to young people who are active citizens, constantly navigating human rights defending spaces.
Young people are treated as a homogenous group, and we are being so far removed from essential decision-making tables, with the most power, and that is blanketed with the “youth” sections at conferences and in these big commissions and platforms. The lack of inclusive dialogue on engaging youth in human rights defending work is resulting in the huge gap we see in youth policy making. Finding one’s feet in an overwhelming space full of jargon like the United Nations can make one ask a lot of questions, but more than that it answers a lot of questions we have been having. Who sits in the policy spaces? Who speaks for youth and who tracks implementation?
One would expect that as the largest population of youth in this lifetime we would be in those spaces, and actually be listened to. However, one gets to ask themselves accountability related questions such as the use and importance of these spaces. What will the Rights of the Child resolution do for me and my work? What will the South African Universal Periodic Review (UPR- a process through which HRC member states review a country and recommend better approaches to implementation of various processes/resolutions etc.) do in fostering policy change and implementation? The answer is simple: nothing-if we do not know how these global processes work for our rights and how we can hold states accountable. So, my work there is actively on advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for all folk, and having done the bit of advocacy with South Africa alone, I have come to learn that young people (particularly women’s bodies) are actually part of geopolitical trade games.
We witnessed it first-hand last council (HRC34) in 2016, where South Africa was negotiating with Russia and voting against our national and regional SRHR commitments. These are inclusive of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and adolescent sexual health and right as priorities. Not only that, but engaging with the South African delegation on their stance around CSE within the Rights of the Child resolution, and learning that they are not able to define it, see it’s worth, and that they acknowledge that there are other factors of “development” that are of urgent attention that women’s rights or adolescent sexual and reproductive rights. No young people are present in these conversations that directly violate their rights.
The South African Government has pledged to “put children first” by becoming a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and by according children special recognition in the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution. This commitment aims to ensure that children’s rights are upheld, and that provision is made to enable all children to reach their full potential. This is especially important in the formative school years, during which providing special attention to children’s optimal health will improve not only their survival, growth and health, but also their learning outcomes and development.
Coming back home, I was welcomed by an article on The Sowetan about a school that is forcing teenage girls to sign pledges that they will not be pregnant in the year and if they are, they must be kicked out. The whole idea is problematic yes, but the saddest part is the fact that young girls ACTUALLY took these forms home, and there was resistance in a number of ways such as some parents stating that the boys should have also signed. Some parents were happy with it and agreed to sign. So, the question would be, where does the issue of preventing unplanned pregnancy through education and implementing the integrated school-health policy be? Moreover, these young people take these forms home and get their parents to sign because they DO NOT know that this is violating their right to education, they do not know that such is against the constitution.
We, as youth, women, people, are not taught or told much about our rights, and we cannot fight for rights we do not know that we have. I guess this is where our task is as change drivers. How do we ensure that our engagement as youth is not in a homogenous sense and that the term in itself, “youth engagement” does not limit us in terms of the spaces that we occupy? particularly in defending human rights and influencing policy. The task is ours to show up and be active, but there will be resistance when trying to break those closed doors with hogged spaces we should be occupying. We must be ready.