What can the 7 billionth person on Earth expect from their life? Will they grow to be able to freely express, experience and examine their sexuality? Will they have the ‘luxury’ to be the most sexually liberated person just because they were born in a magical 7 billionth moment? A moment that enabled all 7 billion of us to experience a sexual epiphany, a moment that gave us all the urge to explore our own bodies, our own prejudices, our own boxes for the ‘others’ in our lives.
Coming from a part of the world that constitutes over a 7th of the world’s billions, i.e. India, it can sometimes be daunting to imagine where we would all fit. South Asia tends to be crowded, noisy, dusty, sweaty, and generally packed with people. We also have among the youngest populations in the world. Despite this, the denial of sexuality, as a concept that can be under the control of each individual, is rampant. It’s difficult for people to accept the notion that an individual, a woman, a young girl can have desires, choices and the ability to act on them. Especially to do with sex, reproduction, and their bodies.
A culture that upholds the community and the family over the individual may not always be welcoming to the idea of individual choice. In fact, even sexuality, being a concept that is intrinsically linked to the individual, is a difficult one to come to terms with in South Asia. As a young person in this region, the idea of the world having a 7 billionth person in it seems irrelevant. So many young people have pressing concerns like the lack of adequate food, inability to access education, finding profitable employment, lack of health facilities, among others, that worrying about the number of zeros in 7 billion is unimaginable. The ‘demographic dividend’ will be a chimera, unless governments, donors and implementers on the ground realize the importance of ensuring that these young people are released from such concerns.
Since my mandate (and passion in life) is to focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights, I would like to highlight the keys that may lead to a 7 billionth moment – perhaps not at the exact time that the 7 billionth person is born, but may be by the time this 7 billionth person is ready to make a choice around their sexual or reproductive health. Crazy as it may sound, comprehensive sexuality education that equips young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values they need to determine and enjoy their sexuality, is one of those keys. Why? Because it helps them acquire accurate information, develop life skills like critical thinking and negotiation, nurture open-mindedness and non-judgmental attitudes. This is not just me saying it – there’s evidence [A1] to prove it!
Linked with this is the other key – youth friendly sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. What are those?[A2] Confidential services that provide choices, promote rights and respond to the realities of young people’s lives. These are services that young people trust and want to continue using.
And to enable these two keys to be effective, partnering with young people and advocating for their rights need to go hand in hand with them. Youth-adult partnership means that both young people and adults need to embrace change and be ready to stand by and support each other for mutual benefits, underpinned by democratic values and principles of non-discrimination and equity.
Hierarchical societies like those in South Asia find it hard to engage with young people as equals, but it is not impossible. As a South Asian (and an erstwhile young person!), I have seen firsthand the changes possible among adults in powerful positions. As an example, the governance system of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in South Asia, wholeheartedly embraced the participation of the South Asia Regional Youth Network. Young people share power with adults and make policy decisions for the organisation. And this is only one story among others of SRH services that match young people’s needs discovered through young researchers in Bangladesh, youth centres run by young people in conservative communities in Pakistan, and peer educators and young activists demanding sexuality education as part of the school curriculum in Nepal.
So yes – difficult, tortuous and fantastical as it may seem – that 7 billionth moment is possible. But we all need to believe in it. We all need to believe and strive towards arriving at that sexual epiphany – whether we are activists, development workers, policy makers, funders or just ordinary citizens. We owe it not only to the (almost mystical) 7 billionth person, but also to ourselves. In fact, most importantly to ourselves, to open our minds, hearts and bodies (metaphorically at least!) to the magic of humanity and sexuality.