18 million adolescent girls give birth every year.
That’s 18 million girls – roughly three times the population of Denmark, my home country – who are often robbed of the chance to reach their full potential, stripped of their dreams and deprived of the chance to pursue their ambitions.
Adolescent pregnancy regularly goes hand in hand with child marriage, thrusting adult responsibilities onto girls before they are ready and putting them into a position of subjugation for the rest of their lives. Pregnant girls and child mothers often drop out of school, limiting their future earning potential as well as their ability to be active citizens and shape the communities in which they live.
Girls and young women are disproportionately affected by violations of their sexual and reproductive rights. Younger adolescent girls (aged 10-14 years) are particularly at risk, regularly considered too young to need access to information and services, yet old enough to get married and have children. Their specific needs are all too often forgotten by systems that cater for either children or women, neglecting to recognise the unique challenges faced by adolescents.
Girls’ health and rights at risk
The ground-breaking International Conference on Population and Development first took place in Cairo in 1994. At that conference, 179 governments adopted a landmark Programme of Action, recognising that reproductive health, girls’ and women's empowerment and gender equality are critical to sustainable development.
If the world continues to reject and ignore girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, we will fail to realise the previous global commitments to girls and young women
Yet a quarter of a century later, girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are under attack again. Regressive political forces around the world are pushing to roll back the hard-won progress that has been made over the last 25 years. This is putting the health, lives and the futures of adolescent girls and young women at grave risk. As ever, it will be vulnerable and marginalised girls who are worst affected.
We are now at a critical juncture. We should all be deeply concerned that girls' and women's right to make decisions about their own bodies is still hotly contested in 2019.
The Nairobi Statement released this week affirms the right of girls to make free and informed decisions about their reproductive lives and we welcome the explicit recognition of adolescent girls’ right to comprehensive information, education and services. But governments must now deliver these promises, and they must be held accountable. It is now our collective responsibility to make sure that governments step up and act in line with these promises.
This year’s conference, also known as the Nairobi Summit, is an opportunity for us to stand firm against regressive voices holding the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda hostage and uphold girls’ and women’s right to make decisions about their bodies and lives. Away from the polarised political environment of the UN, it is an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and concrete political and financial commitments to move the agenda forward.
If the world continues to reject and ignore girls’ sexual and reproductive rights, we will fail to realise the previous global commitments to girls and young women and fail to deliver on one of the central promises of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: to leave no one behind. Now is the time for us to be bold.
Nairobi must listen to the voices of girls
Girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights must be at the forefront of our efforts if we are to meet the ambitions of the Programme of Action and achieve gender equality. That is why Plan International is participating in the Nairobi Summit – to shine a light on the needs of adolescent girls and the issues that continue to obstruct their freedoms and their futures.
Everyone at the Nairobi Summit must work together to smash gender stereotypes and harmful gender norms.
We have seen progress, but there is still a long way to go. Adolescent pregnancy, child early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence continue to rob millions of girls around the world of their health, futures and in some cases their lives.
Access to comprehensive education about bodies, relationships and sexuality, and youth-responsive sexual and reproductive health services must be available to all young people so that they can make informed choices free from discrimination, coercion or violence. Everyone at the Nairobi Summit must work together to smash gender stereotypes and harmful gender norms that devalue girls and seek to control their sexuality.
For our efforts to succeed, girls must be front and centre. It is simply not good enough to group adolescent girls together with women or children – they have distinct needs that are not being met, and it’s about time we amplified their voices. Girls can be powerful leaders, and no one knows what they need better than girls and young women themselves.
To accelerate change and progress on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights, adolescents and young people must have a seat at decision-making tables. By making our youth delegation central to our engagement at the Nairobi Summit, we are inviting them to pull up a chair.