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International Youth Day 2014: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights matter for Young People’s Mental Health!

[Brussels, 25 August 2014] August 12 was International Youth Day. You can read below the press release of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) with regards to the urgency to promote and guarantee youth sexual and reproductive health and rights.

On International Youth Day 2014, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) joins advocates worldwide in calling for efforts to support young people’s mental health, so that they can lead lives free from isolation and unnecessary shame, and openly seek and access the services and support they need to live full and healthy lives. In particular, WGNRR calls attention to the importance of full access to critical sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services, including safe and legal abortion, for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Comprising 1.8 billion of the world’s population, young people aged 10-24 are currently the largest population of young people in human history, 90% of whom live in developing countries.[1] As a result of various intersecting factors,[2] young people in the Global South, particularly young women and girls, often have little or no access to SRH information and services, and experience unintended or unwanted pregnancies. In turn, adolescents and young women aged 15-24 account for 40% of all unsafe abortions worldwide, and three million unsafe abortions occur every year among this age group.[3] Compared to older groups, moreover, adolescents are more likely to delay undertaking an abortion, resort to unskilled persons to perform it, use dangerous methods, or put off accessing health services when complications arise.[4]

While the physical health risks that unsafe abortion can pose are grave, extensive and life-threatening, what is often overlooked is the toll that unsafe abortion and an inability to access SRH services can have on a young person’s mental health. Young people in different countries have reported being turned away from SRH services, humiliated and shamed by healthcare providers for engaging and/or thinking of engaging in sexual activity, and being accused of “immorality” and eroding “traditional” values. Upon having an unwanted pregnancy, youth may also be reluctant or afraid of accessing SRH services, for fear of experiencing further shame, discrimination, and public exposure.[5] [6] Moreover, in choosing to undergo an abortion, adolescents are likely to experience isolation and emotional stress because of a frequent lack, or perceived lack, of support from their parents or partners.[7] Many youth have reported living in fear of emotional/physical abuse or eviction, should their parents or partners learn of their decision to have an abortion,[8] and as such choose not to turn to their loved ones for support, further compounding their stress and isolation. As such, in being denied access to SRH services, and fearing ostracism from the greater community, young people may experience significant emotional turmoil, anxiety, psychological pain and trauma, all of which severely compromises their mental health and wellbeing, and in some cases places them at risk of depression and/or suicide.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are critical dimensions of any persons’ health and wellbeing, and integral for not only their physical but also mental health. As stated by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC):
“Adolescent girls…should have access to health services that are sensitive to their rights and particular needs. […] The Committee urges State parties…to develop and implement programmes that provide access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, contraception and safe abortion services where abortion is not against the law, adequate and comprehensive obstetric care and counselling…”[9]

The international community has a moral imperative to secure women’s and girls’ SRHR, for which it is essential that all young people have access to comprehensive and youth-friendly SRH services, including the right to safe and legal abortion, encompassing accessible, confidential, sensitive, and high-quality procedures for pregnancy termination, free of marital and/or parental consent requirements. Forced pregnancy violates young people’s human rights and places their physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as those of their families and communities at great risk. Stigma and misinformation surrounding abortion and young people’s sexuality must be eradicated.

In this sense, we call on all youth advocates, members, activists and allies to join us on August 12th 2014, in highlighting the importance of young people’s SRHR for their mental health.

Young people’s mental health matters! This International Youth Day let’s hold governments accountable, to ensure that young people are able to exercise their SRHR as a necessary condition to fully realize their mental health!

As one of its priority areas, WGNRR advocates for the recognition of young peoples’ sexual and reproductive rights as human rights, including their right to safe and legal abortion, for which one of our key days of action is the upcoming September 28, Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. For more information about September 28 and ways you can get involved, watch this space!

[1] UNFPA (2013), Adolescent and Youth Demographics: A Brief Overview, retrieved 8 August 2014
[2]Factors placing young women and girls at a heightened risk of unwanted pregnancies include a lack of knowledge about menstruation and pregnancy; social taboos surrounding young female sexuality; a lack of economic/financial independence; a lack of access to, and knowledge about how to use, contraceptives; difficulties in using contraceptives because of a partner’s or family objections; contraceptive failure; and/or sexual assault. For more information please see UNFPA (2012), From Childhood to Womanhood: Meeting the Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs of Adolescent Girls, retrieved 6 August 2014; and Ipas (2004), Adolescents, unwanted pregnancy and abortion, retrieved 6 August 2014.
[3]Youth Coalition (2013). Freedom of Choice : A YouthActivist’s Guide to Safe Abortion Advocacy, 2nded.
[4]The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has showed concern by the fact that “[…] various factors, including limited availability of contraceptives, poor reproductive health education and the requirement of parental consent have resulted in an increasing number of illegal abortions among girls.” United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Kyrgyzstan, 24th Sess., para. 45, U.N.Doc.CRC/C/15/Add.127 (2000)
[5]Please see the story of Samuel, who upon accessing Kividea, a youth-serving organization in Tanzania, shared his experience in being unable to access SRH information and services.
[6] Please see the 2013 PostAbortion Care (PAC) Consortium video, Youth Voices on Post-Abortion Care, sharing young people’s perspectives from Nepal, Senegal, Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya on family planning, unintended pregnancy, postabortion care, and comprehensive health services for youth.
[7]Ipas (2004), Adolescents, unwanted pregnancy and abortion, p. 10, retrieved 6 August 2014.
[8]Ipas, Danger ahead: how restricting teens’ access to safe abortion threatens their lives & health, retrieved 6 August 2014.
[9]United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 4 (2003): Adolescent Health and Development in the Context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 33rd Sess, para 31, U.N. Doc CRC/GC/2003/4 (2003).

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