Sex Positivity and ASRH at Women Deliver

This guest blog post was written by Ramya Jawahar Kudekallu, Executive Member, Advisor on Law and Policy with the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning.

I was a young program associate with the World YWCA when I first heard of the Women Deliver conferences in 2013. It was a time in my life where terms like ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ (SRHR) or ‘demographic dividend’ had little context or meaning. Wide eyed and equipped with a law degree, I was eager to lap up all I could, so as to better understand the jargon of ‘development.’ At the time, I could not attend in person, so I watched the few available videos of panels from 2013’s event online with rapt attention.

Ramya Kudekallu and Jillian Gedeon, young leaders in the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning at Women Deliver. (Photo: Ramya Kudekallu)
Ramya Kudekallu and Jillian Gedeon, young leaders in the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning at Women Deliver. (Photo: Ramya Kudekallu)

Fast forward to 2016, the opportunity of attending the famed conference presented itself thanks to the USAID-funded Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project. The LMG Project partners with my organization, the International Youth Alliance on Family Planning (IYAFP)—a global collective of young community workers, experts, and stakeholders with a focus on reproductive rights and health, with special attention to advocacy on family planning.

To my delight, the conference was bold and forthcoming with both in its choice of speakers and subjects. For my part, I was interested in following the discourse on sexuality and politics as well as adolescent sexual and reproductive health (ASRH). Women Deliver 2016 was an opportunity for me to take stock of the progress of international initiatives, such as the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals, twenty years of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Family planning has been a ‘soft’ landing, yet critical channel for creating safe spaces for young women to be able to make decisions about their bodies and their sexual health, however, even this has had a limited reach.

Although many recognize that access to contraceptives and sexual health are inalienable and universal rights, in many countries family planning services continue to exclude unmarried women and girls. While health centers and pharmacies stock contraceptive products, the health workers who provide family planning guidance and advice often harbor cultural and religious stigmas against young people using contraceptives. 

My IYAFP colleagues and I—who work with communities to increase access to family planning—reflect that cultural resistance to family planning continues to undermine what little political will can be built. The choices of adolescents and youth pertaining to their sexuality, their bodies, and even their affections are diminished by the very constituencies that elect the governments.

A group of young leaders at Women Deliver 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Ramya Kudekallu)
A group of young leaders at Women Deliver 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Ramya Kudekallu)

There are enough examples demonstrating the frigidity of political will in the face of cultural practice, be it the prevalence of child marriage (in spite of legislation), not providing age appropriate sex education, or constraining access to contraceptives. It is for these reasons that IYAFP and the LMG Project work together to develop young community leaders, so that a new generation of citizens has the information, exposure, and understanding needed to end discrimination in comprehensive health care services and to promote human rights.

Similarly, I wanted to track the discourse on how sex positive attitudes are being encouraged with governments and communities, because education on sexuality, gender, and well-being is an important aspect of adolescent reproductive rights.

Dr. Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli from the World Health Organization was one formidable presenter who recommended that the language of advocacy comprehensively include adolescent sexual well-being, moving beyond merely categorizing adolescents as a high risk group. He said that expanding this context allows the data to impact developmental policy in the global north and south, since the issue is not specific to ‘developing’ countries alone. 

Within IYAFP, global youth representatives collaborate to share possible action plans that push governments to include ASRH education in schools and health centers. The aim is to ensure adolescents become comfortable in seeking accurate and accessible information, and health workers are prepared to provide that information.

I left Women Deliver 2016 not only replenished, but also reassured... women most definitely deliver!