By Arushi Singh
As some of you are aware, I was at IPPF’s Consultative Meeting under the Girls Decide initiative from 16-17 Sept. This meeting, funded by the Packard Foundation, was aimed at:
- building a shared understanding of the contributing and root factors influencing girls’ and young women’s SRHR
- identifying strategies that create supportive, rights-based and safe environments for girls and young women to make informed choices related to sex and pregnancy
- promoting a comprehensive approach to adolescent pregnancy and sexuality
The meeting brought together around 50 participants from NGOs, youth networks, UN agencies, academic institutions, the Dutch government, donors and IPPF representatives. It was organised jointly by the CO Youth Team and Advocacy and Communications Team.
Rather than a traditional trip report document which may not be opened by many of you, I thought of sharing with you the salient points that struck me during the meeting! So here goes…
The idea was also to share and question our experiences around girls and young women and sex and pregnancy. It was highlighted that this year, a number of different campaigns have been undertaken around girls and young women (including by the UN Foundation, Plan, DfID and Nike, FIGO, Care, etc.), however, none that focused on sexuality, involving boys and young men, disability and positive messages on sexuality. Therefore, the meeting served as a space to discuss how we can apply positive approaches to sexuality in programmes and policies related to girls and young women’s SRH. It also served as an opportunity for feedback on the first draft of the Girls Decide landmark publication that looks at girls’ and young women’s sexuality (attached for your reference).
The meeting opened with a thought-provoking panel that explored:
· The evolving capacities of young people – youth continue to be defined by what they are not, i.e. adults! The evolving capacities discourse takes the middle ground between the protectionist and autonomy discourse. A research being conducted on young women in the UK revealed that young women’s decision are more likely to be based on their expectations and not on their aspirations.
· Sexuality and gender – we’re sexual beings in gender systems that we’re born into. This gender usually being defined or known in binary terms (m/f) and sex is always happening between gendered individuals. Therefore, to change the way in which embodied sex happens, the gender systems needs to change.
· The social determinants of young people’s SRH – contextual factors like policies, neighbourhood, customs and social change that affect an individual response, the outcome of which could be early sexual engagement. Globally, ‘family’ has been consistently shown as a protective factor for young people.
· The impact of policies on girls’ and young women’s SRH – since the ‘80s, there has been a ‘Gender and Development’ approach to policy-making. However, the discourse has slowly been shifting to leadership and gender analysis. Despite this, there is not enough focus on changing the social structures around women’s lives, while a lot more on changing women’s lives! Rights are not only about individual’s lives, but also about improving the social structures of those individuals.
The rest of Day 1 was organised in working group sessions around the themes of:
- Sexuality and girls – I was moderating the panel on sexuality and we spoke about the fact that there are differences in the way girls experience their sexuality though boys face a number of pressures as well. A significant point made was the dramatic shift (in most cultures) that girls’ sexuality has to undergo – from being denied and silenced at childhood to sudden expectations of fertility, generally through marriage. Secrecy and inhibition, usually perpetuated by parents, needs to be broken. Good practice includes ‘Speakeasy’ by the UK FPA which was a course for parents on talking sexuality to their children. It is also important to look at how girls make decisions – another good intervention cited was one with MSM participants who are asked to write / keep retrospective diaries about the ‘risky’ situations they got into and how they arrived at these situations. This led to a reduction in their getting into such risky situations.
- Power dynamics and girls – female experience of power takes place in patriarchal contexts and is conflicting. We need to look at redefining power and at strategies for empowering girls so they can negotiate the power-gender dynamics. ‘Gender blind’ interventions do not work. We need to look at multiple identities and experiences, therefore at inter-sectional and comprehensive interventions.
- Girls wanting pregnancy – decisions on pregnancy are influenced by many factors, including laws and social influences. In some countries, girls have a lot of choices while in others not so much. Most programmes focus on delaying the first pregnancy and the first sexual relationship – is this really the best way? There was a lot of debate on this topic with some participants even saying that the topic ought not to have been discussed at all because what if a 10 year old girl wants to get pregnant?!
- Girls not wanting pregnancy – the role of family and peers in delivering education and services was examined. What is the impact of young people not having a full choice of services? The biggest impact is perhaps of the person delivering the service, i.e. attitudes, etc. More interventions are needed on boys and young men and contraceptives, parents’ education, encouraging young people to stay in school and sexuality education.
The plenary discussions also brought out that the shift towards maternal health was resulting in anyone who was not a ‘baby-making machine’ not getting any attention. This is similar to DfID’s new paper on maternal health where they are viewing women as pre-pregnant, pregnant and post-pregnant! In addition, some frustrations were that there are many small-scale interventions without a wide impact and not enough funding for evaluation. Positive approaches need to be taken in different situations and people need to be enabled to view positive aspects of sexuality, since this is linked with violence against women. Instead of focusing only on enabling girls to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’, it is important to also enabling girls to have a more active role with regard to their sexuality, i.e. enabling them to be initiators.
In order to effectively address girls’ and young women’s pregnancy related issues from a rights-based perspective, on Day 2 we explored how positive approaches to sexuality can be integrated into programmes and policies that influence:
- girls directly – a comprehensive approach is needed with a gender perspective in all areas, like education, etc. The most marginalised girls need to be reached and spaces created for them along with mentors and micro-credit. Governments need to have disaggregated data with respect to young people and learn from the small scale initiatives that exist.
- their parents and families – there are different definitions of family and girls are diverse. Inter-generational communication needs to be improved with parents being facilitators, enabling autonomy and balancing this with protection, while girls’ access to services must be normalised. Indicators for such interventions could be the improved ability of parents and children to communicate, decrease in partner violence, a shift in parental attitudes to parenting and an increased understanding of who supports access of girls to services. In addition, an increase in critical thinking of gender roles in a family would be a key indicator.
- boys and men – Adam Garner and I moderated this session and there was a debate about whether we should be engaging boys and men to reach / have impacts on women or because boys and men have needs of their own to be addressed. IPPF’s stand, as per our policy is that, we are committed to addressing male sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the need to work with men and boys, together with women and girls, as equal partners. We spoke about how men tend to back out of testing related to PMTCT. However, a different perspective comes in if the focus of the intervention is on their children. One entry point discussed was, “how to pleasure girlfriends”, for engaging boys and men. ‘Making boys better lovers’ was identified as an outcome that can achieve positive results for both men and women along with a supportive environment for change in perceptions of masculinity, better communication about sexuality and fostering harmony, equality, respect and positive gender practices.
- the broader political, social and cultural contexts – these contexts are the determinants of girls’ lives and we need to understand how to change these. The SRHR movement needs to partner with the women’s movements and other rights movements, academia, faith based organizations and the private sector to achieve greater impact.
In plenary discussion, the role of young people was emphasised as important in every step of an intervention. Although, it was also emphasised that often donors want to evidence / outcomes of young people’s participation, therefore good documentation of the same is also required.
The discussions were complemented by visual minutes that captured the themes in a stimulating visual / graphic format!