The birds and the bees and the SDGs

There’s no room for awkward conversations or blushes when it comes to making sure girls across the globe know about sex and their rights to health and education. There’s too much at stake. As Meera Shah, from the Center for Reproductive Rights explains, the Sustainable Development Goals must get serious about ensuring girls have access to information and resources so they can make informed decisions about their bodies.

Like most girls in Tanzania, Rehema went to school when she was young. What she didn’t learn at school, though, would impact the rest of her life. Without sex education, she didn’t know about contraceptives or condoms, and had no idea how to prevent pregnancy. As a result, she became pregnant at 16.

She was pressured to drop out of school as soon as her pregnancy became known. This is common in Tanzania, as pregnant teens are considered to be a bad influence. She thought about terminating the pregnancy, but Tanzania’s highly restrictive abortion law meant Rehema would have had to resort to an unsafe procedure, putting her life and health at risk.

More than 20 per cent of girls in developing countries become pregnant before they turn 18.

Rehema is not alone. More than 20 per cent of girls in developing countries become pregnant before they turn 18. One in four girls aged 15-19 who are sexually active don’t have access to contraception. These figures show why girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights can’t be neglected.

To address this and many other issues that hold some of the most vulnerable people back, world leaders came together at the end of September to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs will drive the development agenda – and spending – for the next 15 years, and they have the potential to transform the lives of girls worldwide.

The SDGs contain important commitments to girls’ health, education and gender equality. Crucially, the agenda contains a pledge to universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights as part of the goal to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls. The health goal also contains a specific commitment to universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including family planning, education and information.

The significance of this can’t be made clear enough. Every year, 70,000 girls die as a result of complications during pregnancy or childbirth. And even when they survive, deeply entrenched attitudes towards girls and women often force them to take on the burden of childrearing, which undermines their futures and their ability to exercise a broad range of human rights.

These goals are only the first step. To unleash the SDGs’ full potential, countries must be held accountable by scrutinising results, making them publicly known and addressing shortcomings. Girls must continue to be heard by actively involving them at every stage of the process. They must have a meaningful say in how their own lives are impacted.

Guaranteeing access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services is critical for girls. Without it, girls like Rehema won’t get the opportunity to fully realise their potential.

Now 23, Rehema lives with her parents and works part-time as a cook. She firmly believes that if she had been able to finish secondary school, she would have had greater job opportunities and perhaps even be self-employed.

The evidence bears out that if Rehema hadn’t been forced to leave school and instead finished her secondary education, she now would have better earning potential, and her child would be more likely to be healthy and educated as well. 

The SDGs provide an opportunity to ensure that no more girls have to forfeit their education as a result of gaps in gender equality and access to health services and information.

Meera Shah is a global advocacy adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organisation that fights to ensure reproductive rights are guaranteed in law as fundamental human rights.