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Ishita Chaudhry at High-Level Task Force Global Launch

On 25 April 2013 the High-Level Task Force for ICPD organized an event to launch its policy recommendations for ICPD beyond 2014.The document, available here stresses the need for fulfillment of sexual and reproductive rights, achieving universal access to SRHR information, education and services, including safe abortion, provision of comprehensive sexuality education to young people in and out of school and eliminating violence against women and girls.

RESURJ member Ishita Chaudhry is a member of the HLTF. Here is her speech delivered today:

Seven months ago, I stood on this very same lectern and spoke to many of you. In a world where 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 10-19 exist, it is very easy for a young person’s voice to get lost. Our lives become stories, often forgotten about, compromised in resolutions, documented in reports. Having spent the last 36 hours seeped in negotiations of the UN Commission on Population and Development right across the street, I’ve been listening to the world’s governments debate about words that have great power, to influence and shape the lives of millions of my peers, including my own. So actually, I do have something to say.

This week I learnt about the concept of Red Lines – a point beyond which a group is unwilling to negotiate. And I’ve been amazed at how many red lines governments can be willing to draw against ensuring that young women and girls are raised with the skills to have simple things. Like autonomy, to enter into a relationship by choice, or get married at an age of one’s choosing; or critical thinking, to have the knowledge about your body and your rights to yes, or no, or maybe. And as we paused at 10.00pm last night, I wondered. How are some of these red lines going to effectively protect young people from violence if they are unable to provide us access to comprehensive sexuality education? And how are we still contesting that women, young people and especially those most marginalized pay the highest price for existing inequities?

Let me tell you a story about why this is important and how we can do it. Three weeks ago at The YP Foundation office, one of the girls who is training to be a peer educator with us came to our office. Nusrat is 17 and a young Muslim girl who lives with a family where her brother is the only earning member. As a result, she has always had very little bargaining power over her mobility and freedom. This is not uncommon for many adolescent girls we work with. In the 5 years that she has been with us, Nusrat had never spoken publicly in a workshop, but was shy and quiet.

Nusrat came in one day to our office with bruises, welts on her arm, back and face. It was obvious she had been beaten and after much bonding with Chinese Food, she began explaining that every time her brother saw her spend time with the non-Muslim side of the community, he would hit her to punish her. “He doesn’t want me to desert our community and run away to the Hindu side,” she said, “and so he just looses his temper because he doesn’t want me to bring dishonour to the family.” Said it so hesitatingly and yet so matter-of-factly that I remember looking at this young girl, wondering how much we had to have failed her, if she was able to go to school, but experienced belting every time she spoke to her friends from a different faith.

After helping clean her wounds, an image that is burned in my mind, we began talking about what it would mean to tell her brother how she feels. To slowly but surely stand up for her rights and to articulate her own aspirations and desires; one of the most basic tenants of the life skills that comprehensive sexuality education provides. I remember one of my most important learning’s in our work from that day, when I realized that Nusrat was going to have to be empowered enough herself, to break the cycle of both violence, poverty, and inequity that she found herself in, and that as much as I wanted, I couldn’t really do much more. Risking being beaten multiple times, Nusrat has been turning up for training sessions and visits, and recently, finally told her brother to stop.

Three weeks ago, she spoke, in a role-play with her peers. The role-play was about how a young girl can remove stigma and discrimination in her community by standing up for the rights of others. It was so unexpected that I remember, my colleague Sumaya who is here today and I, we froze. We couldn’t believe that the girl who had struggled day in and day out for 5 years to do something as simple as participate, was finally, finally speaking so clearly and confidently. Nusrat now talks about wanting finish school and come and work with us, so she can lead similar awareness programmes that give young girls critical information about their bodies and their rights, and critical skills to negotiate their own lives.

Violence is so prevalent amongst young people, and affects young women in particular. Up to 50% of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16. In India, a government commissioned survey found that more than 53% of children in India are subjected to sexual abuse, and 73% of them don’t report assaults to anyone.

Without comprehensive sexuality education, violence is internalized culturally to a point where parliamentarians and politicians will tell you, like we have heard recently in India, that if you get raped, or abused, it was probably because the hemline of your skirt was too short or because you were out alone, so late at night and were ‘asking for it’. No one ‘asks’ for violence. These stereotypes create deep inequalities, and addressing them is a question of social justice. How can any government believe that ensuring this is not part of their faith, or religion or culture?

Failure in this lifetime to provide Nusrat with the information, skills, and services resources and support she needs, resources as basic as proper sexuality education, and the services and skills to avoid the problems I’ve mentioned, will ensure that she can never challenge the cycle of poverty and oppressive environment that she finds herself in. There can be no economic, social, environment progress or gender justice without individual empowerment. The High Level Task Force understands that and I hope governments do too.

We recently co-conducted consultations on the Post 2015 process in February this year involving 284 young people who represented 100 youth organizations across India. Investing in securing Adolescent SRH and CSE turned out to be one of the top 5 crosscutting asks that young people had. This is also the demand from 3,000 young people across 150 countries, as expressed in the Bali Youth Declaration adopted this past December at the Global ICPD Youth Forum.

In the past eleven years, I have contemplated leaving this work many times. It is challenging and overwhelming at many points. But just when I start to think this, I see Nusrat walking into our office. And as she peeks into my cubicle and smiles hello, it is a powerful reminder of how important it is to live a life where you are empowered enough to make your own choices, to stand up for your own aspirations and to have something as basic, as self-respect, self-esteem, and a voice.

Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights carry with them the promise of ensuring that millions of young people, especially women and girls, can live lives to their fullest potential. And eleven years of listening to and learning from the incredible stories of communities I work with have taught me, that we are obligated to ensure these rights. Quite simply, because we are in a position to do so. And that in my mind, this will always be worth fighting for.

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