Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of five talented youth from four countries who had traveled to New York to participate in the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS. As we discussed their goals and the commitments they hoped governments would make towards ending the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, one clear priority emerged: sexual rights.
One of the advocates, a young man from Costa Rica, told me that talking about HIV and AIDS without addressing sexual rights is like “closing your eyes.” I couldn’t agree more.
The connection between sexual rights and HIV and AIDS is undeniable, with the majority of HIV infections transmitted sexually. Sexuality is a natural aspect of life, and a fundamental part of our humanity.
Too often, the world closes its eyes to this reality in creating and carrying out policies and programs. As a result, discrimination, stigma and inequality continue to compromise the ability of many to exercise choice in their sexual and reproductive lives and to safely express their own sexual identity—especially women and young people.
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As rates of new HIV infections among women and girls continue to rise, more attention has been paid to the factors that make them vulnerable to HIV, such as violence and sexual coercion.
Yet less attention has been paid to the social and psychological barriers that young people often face in accessing the information, commodities, and services they need to protect their health. We can build the best HIV prevention clinics in the world, but they will not be effective if clients do not show up.
Even in societies where discriminatory traditions such as child marriage are slowly eroding, very little support exists for programs that address young people’s sexuality in a non-judgmental way. Good, quality comprehensive sexuality education is rarely available in schools, much less for the millions of adolescents who are out of school, and youth-friendly health services remain a boutique endeavor.
Robust investments in programs and services that help young people examine values regarding gender and sexuality will ultimately empower today’s generation of youth—the largest ever in history—to create new cultural norms based on equality and respect.
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Finally, when we think of stigma and discrimination, we rarely consider the experiences of HIV positive women. And, policies and programs rarely consider the unique needs and experiences of women living with HIV or arm them with the information they need to exercise their rights.
In the Dominican Republic, a recent study of the Stigma Index, in collaboration with IPPF member Profamilia, found that discrimination against women living with HIV can often be much stronger than the stigma men experience. Women suffered discrimination more than men in at least 10 categories of discrimination listed in the index, including employment and health care. The study also found that these women were more likely to be physically abused, forced to have sex or even threatened with a gun.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region has long been a champion of quality health services for all and a staunch defendant of sexual and reproductive rights. We know, based on decades of experience, that in order for all people to attain the highest standard of health, they must first be empowered to exercise choice in their sexual and reproductive lives and feel safe and informed in expressing their sexual identity.
If we as a world are to see an end to the AIDS pandemic, we can no longer afford to keep our eyes closed to this reality.