Achieving our vision—a world where all people have access to the information, services, and rights they need to live healthy and empowered lives—requires tenacity, energy, and innovation. It also requires favorable international legislation and policies, sufficient funding, and popular support. What’s more, we need a network of advocates that understand the real-life needs of the remote indigenous communities in Peru, the bustling tent cities of Haiti, and the high mountains in Bolivia—and who can bring these needs to powerful government actors at the national, regional, and international levels.
We are an agile and sophisticated network of advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights that works in nearly every country throughout the Americas. IPPF/WHR works side-by-side with individuals and organizations to strengthen their advocacy skills and develop robust civil society coalitions. We invest in youth leaders by building their capacity to shape the policies that affect their lives and to hold their governments accountable. Together, our network works to ensure that policies and programs meet the real-life needs of local communities.
Earlier this year, the long-standing advocacy efforts of our local Member Association in Peru—INPPARES— culminated in the Peruvian Constitutional Court’s ruling in favor of the health, rights, and autonomy of young people.
In 2006, the government of Peru amended the Peruvian Criminal Code to protect young people from sexual abuse and violence. Although its intention was to take a tough stance against sexual abuse committed against a minor by an adult, the amendment also criminalized all sexual activity among adolescents between 14 and 18 years old, regardless of consent, with draconian sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
In addition to violating the basic rights of adolescents, the law left “medical practitioners unclear of the treatment they should provide to adolescents…even jeopardizing prenatal check-ups as the pregnancy is the evidence of the crime.” It also left young people fearful of accessing the services they needed. Said one young Peruvian woman, “I had heard about this law and was scared…I was frightened to go to the hospital because I was scared [the government] would take away my baby or send me to communal housing, where I could no longer care for him.”
In Peru, where one in seven young women gives birth by age 19, the threat of harsh legal penalties had a negative impact on the health and well-being of young people. As a consequence, the rates of teen pregnancy and maternal mortality increased among young people once the law was passed.
Ever since this controversial amendment was approved, INPPARES worked closely with Women’s Link Worldwide and other civil society organizations to challenge the law as an unconstitutional violation of adolescents’ right to health care.
To support the needs of Peruvian youth, the coalition of advocacy groups undertook a risky strategy by initiating a legal negotiation process with the Constitutional Court to challenge the law. If the court denied their claim of unconstitutionality, it would reinforce the law’s legitimacy and leave little recourse to have it overturned in the future.
The proceedings began on shaky ground. Before the Constitutional Court would hear the case, they asked INPPARES to provide evidence of public support for its revocation. When the Constitutional Court requested to see 5,000 signatures from Peruvian citizens who believed the law should be changed, INPPARES altered its strategy and looked to the country’s youth to lead this advocacy campaign.
“Young people are capable of confronting the injustices that affect their lives,” said Ana Victoria Suárez, INPPARES legal counsel.
Within weeks, more than 50 youth groups across the country were mobilized and out in the streets. They went to busy shopping plazas and health fairs to raise awareness and collect signatures from youth and adults alike. They issued press statements, organized rallies, and wrote letters to the Constitutional Court. By reaching out to people living in both rural and urban provinces, the youth network not only met the goal; they more than doubled it.
INPPARES and its partners returned to the legal negotiations with 10,609 signatures asking to overturn Article 173, Paragraph 3 of the Criminal Code. In early January 2013, the Constitutional Court in Peru announced that the law has been changed, effective immediately. It explicitly recognized the sexual rights of adolescents and the importance of respecting those rights.
“As a youth activist, being part of this historic process to enforce human rights in Peru is an honor,” said INPPARES youth advocate Carlos Tacuri.“It fills me with hope that young people like me can fulfill our dream of building a more egalitarian society that respects the rights of adolescents.”
In August 2008, at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, health and education ministers from Latin America and the Caribbean signed a historic agreement—the Ministerial Declaration, “Preventing through Education,”—to dramatically increase young people’s access to comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services by 2015.
In signing this agreement, Ministers took the first step towards eradicating barriers to access and upholding the sexual rights of all young people. Since that time, IPPF/WHR, in collaboration with Demysex of Mexico, has been organizing civil society in 19 countries to hold governments accountable for their commitments.
Through this alliance—the Mesoamerican Coalition—we have worked with more than 40 local organizations and IPPF Member Associations to evaluate progress towards achieving implementation, to spread awareness of the Declaration, and to engage in advocacy efforts with governments and other stakeholders.
An important part of our work within this Coalition is evaluating how far countries have come towards upholding their commitments. Four years after the signing of the Declaration, we have seen some promising advances. For example, in May 2012, Costa Rica adopted a national sexuality program for the first time in history. The program includes thematic issues and lessons that extend far beyond abstinence or the biology of reproduction. The curriculum approaches human sexuality in a comprehensive way, including lessons on human rights and gender equality, power and interpersonal communications, respect for diversity, and even pleasure. Without the technical experience and knowledge of our Member Association ADC and their allies from the Mesoamerican Coalition, which have been working closely with the Ministry of Education to develop the curricula, this victory would not have come to fruition. Although ensuring implementation of the program throughout the country will be an ongoing challenge going forward, its adoption is an important step towards meeting the real needs of youth in Costa Rica.
While progress has been made, many of us are asking governments, “¿Que Paso con lo Firmado?” or, “What happened to what you signed?” It is worrying to see that with two years left, many countries in the region are scoring well below this threshold—some as low as 24 percent. The low scores reflect the gaps and challenges our region has faced—and continues to face—in expanding access to comprehensive sexuality education and youth-friendly health services.
Nevertheless, our cross-country alliance to hold governments accountable is working, and we will not stop until the promises of the Ministerial Declaration become a reality for all young people.
IPPF/WHR believes that all people have the right to make autonomous decisions about their bodies and live free of discrimination and violence. We advocate for these rights with national governments, the United Nations, and international donors. At the same time, we empower youth to secure the information and services they need to live healthy lives.