Issue in Focus: Confronting Double Standards - Rodelyn Marte

Rodelyn Marte

Sex, sexuality and sexual rights, to this day, continue to be controversial and much contended topics. The controversy becomes even more convoluted and the contention greater, however, when the discourse specifically focuses on young people’s sex, sexuality and sexual rights.

Double standards in sexual rights recognition

The issues of sexuality and sexual rights have been debated upon and fought over at various levels – personal and collective, local and global. At the international level, individuals and groups promoting sexual rights have gained significant ground despite opposition from conservatives. There is no explicit mention of sexual rights in international consensus documents, but in 1995, the international community in Beijing managed to recognise the existence of sexual rights without using the term. The Beijing Platform for Action’, (outcome document of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women), is regarded as setting forth the definition of sexual rights by providing that women’s human rights include the right to “have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality....” For sexual rights activists, this is a significant battle won, as international commitments (in theory, and ideally, at least) guide national laws and policies. The victory is incomplete though – commitment to recognise and respect sexual rights has failed to extend to young people.

At the crux of such failure is the compulsion of some adults to control, if not deny, young people’s sexualities, as reflected in the existence of several layers of double standards when it comes to young people and sex. The first layer is age-based, the general rule being: it is inappropriate for young people to have sex. The second layer is based on marital status: young women may have sex as long as they are married. The next one discriminates between men and women: young men having sex before or even outside marriage is often tolerated, if not encouraged. And so on and so forth.

The layers of double standards do not end in the social prescriptions regarding young people’s sexual conduct, or more appropriately, non-conduct. The layers apply to the selective recognition of which of the sexual and reproductive health rights are accorded to young people. For example, many adolescent and youth sexual/reproductive health (AYSRH) policies and programs recognise young people's rights to, and address their need for sexual and reproductive health information and education, but not services. If their need for sexual and reproductive health services is at all addressed, it is often limited, and does not include providing access to a full range of contraceptive options. Most of the time, safe abortion services are unavailable to young women; when provisions for safe abortion services do exist, young people’s rights to confidentiality and privacy are often violated. Also, despite an almost universal recognition of young people's right to be free from sexual violence and diseases, recognition of this same right is somewhat grey when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) youth. Additionally, U.S. abstinence-only policies respect and promote young people's right to say no sex, but not their right to enjoy it.

Sadly in the end, it is young people who bear the consequences of these double standards: despite the dangers of early pregnancy, almost 15 million adolescent women become pregnant every year; one out of every four women undergoing unsafe abortion is an adolescent; one in two new persons living with HIV is a young person; and countless LGBTIQ youth are forced to hide their sexual identity for fear of discrimination and threats to their health and lives.

Ways Forward

Young people’s sexual responsibility and health can never be achieved by censorship of their sexual rights. Providing young people access to complete and fact-based sexuality information and education enables them to make informed and responsible decisions. Giving youth access to non-judgmental, non-discriminatory, safe and quality sexual health services, meanwhile empowers them to act on these decisions.

If policymakers, programme planners and implementers are sincere about their intent to address young people’s sexual and reproductive health needs, they should first come to terms with accepting young people as sexual beings and respect young people’s sexual rights. Youth sexual health needs may sometimes be different from those of adults, but they are just as legitimate. Next, adult stake-holders should recognise that as much as young people share many similar issues and concerns, there is vast diversity among them. Differences between the needs of young women and young men, heterosexual and LGBTIQ youth, rich and economically-disadvantaged youth, older youth and younger youth, among others, should therefore be reflected in any law, policy or programme affecting them.

Health service providers should confront their own prejudices against young people. Aside from the inaccessibility and lack of affordability of youth sexual and reproductive health services, discriminatory and condescending attitudes of health personnel, requirements of parental or spousal consent and betrayal of young patients' confidence discourage young people from seeking sexual and reproductive health care. Personal beliefs and morals should not be imposed when providing services to any client, regardless of the client’s age or marital status.

The international community should promote more progressive frameworks on AYSRH and support explicit language promoting youth sexual rights in international documents. They should also allocate funds to ensure that the progressive frameworks are translated into actions at both the local and global levels.

Critical to making youth policies and programmes work, however, is ensuring the meaningful participation and perspectives of young people in their planning, making, implementing, review and monitoring. However, the difference between meaningful participation and just any participation can never be over emphasized. Meaningful youth participation is not just about having young people in AYSRH organisations and networks, or having young people sit in meetings, roundtables or conferences. Meaningful youth participation entails respect for young people's competencies and decision-making abilities and incorporation of their perspectives and opinions in any decision that has to do with them, at all levels and in every possible way.

Controlling young people’s sexualities is characteristically patriarchal, denial of it is condescending; both insult young people as they do not respect their capacity to make responsible decisions regarding their own sexualities and sexual lives, nor their capacity to bear the consequences of their sexual decisions. While intending to protect young people from the possible unpleasant consequences of sex, adults obsess on the negative and deny young people their right to experience positive sexuality, including sexual pleasure and responsible sexual expression.

Young people's rights are human rights. Their sexual and reproductive rights are a part of these rights. Young people can not, and should not, wait to be accorded full recognition of and respect for their rights when they reach adulthood. Their rights have to be fulfilled now.

For a long time, adults have monopolised the definition of the parameters of young people’s rights. Young people are speaking up and reclaiming their own rights. The Network of Asia Pacific Youth (NAPY), for one, calls for respecting, promoting and fulfilling young people's sexual rights. NAPY believes that same as adults, young people have the right to:

  1. be free from all forms of discrimination on the basis of their age, gender, sexual orientation, refugee status, disability, class, caste, race, education, language, ethnicity, religion, political ideology, marital status, HIV status, occupation and physical appearance;
  2. have freedom and autonomy to choose and express their individualities, sexualities and sexual orientation;
  3. have a safe and satisfying sex life;
  4. make informed choices and decisions on matters affecting their sexuality, health and lives;
  5. privacy and confidentiality when accessing sexual and reproductive health services;
  6. be free and protected from violations of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services including safe abortion services, contraception and protection from reproductive tract infections/sexually transmitted infections/HIV/AIDS is a violation of their sexual and reproductive rights;
  7. choose if, when and who to marry; if and when to have children and how many; and end marriage;
  8. bodily integrity, and to be free from sexual violence, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, domestic violence, unsafe abortion, forced migration, prostitution, trafficking, as well as forced and early marriage;
  9. meaningfully participate at all levels of decision-making about matters that concern their lives; and
  10. have their realities and perspectives reflected in laws, policies and programs affecting them.

Rodelyn Marte, a young feminist activist, is co-coordinator of the Network of Asia Pacific Youth (NAPY) which works for the advancement of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people, especially young people. She is also founding member of The Theia Initiative, a knowledge-, gender- and rights-based NGO in the Philippines. Recently, Rodelyn has joined the programme advisory committee of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), a regional women's health and rights NGO.