Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Key to Achieving Sustainable Development

By Suzanne Petroni, Senior Director for Gender, Population, and Development at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)

Last month, the global community celebrated the 20th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The ICPD, which took place in Cairo in 1994, led to an historic agreement by 179 governments to place women—and importantly, their reproductive health—at the center of the sustainable development agenda. Five years later, while at the State Department, I served as the U.S. government’s “officer in charge” for the five-year review of the ICPD, where we exulted when the global community agreed to advance the ICPD agenda through promoting access to safe abortion, comprehensive sexuality education, and youth-friendly reproductive health services, among other critical areas.

I wish we had more to celebrate in terms of progress, but sadly that’s not the case. Governments worldwide invest far too little in ensuring that adolescents in particular have access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services, with devastating consequences.

Now, as the global community meets once again to set an agenda for achieving global development as part of the “post-2015” process, we have an opportunity to write a new chapter for the world’s youth. We must take advantage of this opportunity to once more place young people’s right to SRH front and center.

Recent research from ICRW highlights the barriers that adolescents face in accessing SRH services. We found that by and large, adolescents lack the knowledge, agency, and resources to make–and act on–decisions about their SRH. Importantly, our report identifies ways to overcome these barriers. One of those ways is to listen to young people themselves, which we did in another study highlighting the powerful voices and perspectives of more than 500 girls living in poverty in 14 countries.

Our research over the years provides ample evidence that the global community is simply not doing enough to meet the SRH needs of adolescents. The commitments made by those 179 governments in 1994 have not yet been realized.

Achieving sustainable development is complex, but we know in 2014—even better than we did 20 years ago—that enabling women, men, and young people to act on their right to sexual health is a critical element of achieving healthier and wealthier nations. We hope those behind the post-2015 development agenda act on this knowledge.

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