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Let's talk about sex - to build more prosperous, more caring societies. 

Speech by UNFPA Regional Director Yoriko Yasukawa at the Youth Conference on the sidelines of the 8th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights, in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, February 23, 2016

On behalf of the United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA – thank you so much to the organizers for this opportunity to address this Youth Conference.

This is such an important meeting. Because when we talk about sexual and reproductive health, young people are at the heart of this topic that is so essential – not only for avoiding unwanted pregnancies or protecting people from illness, but for ensuring a life of dignity and wellbeing for all people.

So let us talk about sex. Sex is the driving force of life. It’s what has put all of us here on this planet. It’s also what connects us humans with other forms of life. It’s such an intimate and private and delicate part of all our lives, and so central to our dignity as people, to who we are. It’s about our bodies, but also our hearts. It’s about who we share them with, and how. It’s also about generating new life from that.

That all human beings, and especially young people, have the means and the freedom to make good and happy and responsible choices around these momentously important questions, respecting the wishes and desires of our partners -- this is so central not only to our physical and mental health, but also to the possibility of building healthy and prosperous and democratic societies that are environmentally sustainable and care for nature with all its diverse forms of life.

This is the spirit and imperative of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development – the ICPD --and the new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

So sex is a very private and intimate thing, but it also has public consequences. And therefore, requires the right kinds of public policies to ensure that everyone has the freedom and access to the services and information they need to make good choices.

So all this is to say that sex is a really important thing. Still, today, well into the 21st century we have such a hard time talking about it in an open and calm and rational way. There are still so many taboos and prejudices. And these taboos and prejudices make it difficult for countries to adopt and apply the right kinds of public policies.

For example, despite long-running efforts by UNFPA and other partners, there are many countries in Asia and the Pacific where comprehensive sexuality education is still not included in national curricula, and even when is, teachers are not teaching it. And the word comprehensive is important here because we aren’t just talking about anatomy and biology, but to be able to talk openly about sex as a physical act, and also as an act of two people connecting emotionally; and the importance of making that connection with love and respect and care, in safety and in freedom.

Because that’s not always the case – sex is often an act of power and violence and domination. And most of the time women and girls are the victims.

And to change that, we need to be able to talk about it openly. We really need to get over the idea that by not speaking about sex, and not giving information about it, we can somehow keep sex locked away in a closet, and get people to do it only when they are married and ready to have children. We need to get real

Taboos and prejudices are also preventing young people who are sexually active from accessing services because of legal and policy barriers, including the requirement to get parental consent. Think about it – what teenager is going to ask his or her parents for permission to get an HIV test, or buy condoms?

Even when young people have access to services, the people providing these services are often not always very friendly or they are disrespectful or judgmental, or can’t be trusted to not share your private information with parents or school authorities.

Discrimination against women and girls, often enshrined in laws and policies, is another big obstacle to universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. It makes it ok for women and girls to be forced into sex, to be made to marry too young, and to become victims of violence.

The results of these barriers are, for example, that over 6 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 have an unmet need for contraceptives. Among unmarried, sexually active adolescent girls, half of them can’t access the protection they need. And this is leading to over 5 million adolescent births every year in Asia and the Pacific, and 3.5 million unsafe abortions in young women under 25 every year in Asia and the Pacific. That’s 34% of all abortions in the region. In Asia and the Pacific, 17,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions, and probably more than a third of these women are under 25.

Then there’s another terrible number – the six hundred thousand or so young people living with HIV in our region -- mainly men who have sex with men, young people who sell sex in order to survive, young people who inject drugs,  and young transgender people. These young people already suffer discrimination, and the HIV infection further stigmatizes and marginalizes them.

All these numbers, these statistics, represent real people, real lives. They also represent a massive failure of public policy, and massive violations of human rights -- the right to ‘life, liberty and security of person’ enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to health, the right to a life of dignity.

Guaranteeing these rights and freedoms to all young people, especially girls and women, is ethically the right thing to do. And at the same time, will contribute enormously to economic growth. But not just any kind of growth -- the kind of growth that generates and distributes prosperity to all people, fairly and equitably.

Ensuring health, dignity, freedom and choice for all women and girls – indeed, all people of all ages but especially the young in this very intimate part of our lives -- is also so important for building societies that are democratic and inclusive, that respect and celebrate diversity; societies that are caring for those that are the most vulnerable, and seek to embrace those that are excluded and marginalized.

And all of you young people who are here today have the responsibility to exercise leadership in making this happen, not only demanding that governments do the right thing, but participating actively and constructively in those spaces where public policy decisions are made. It’s also so important that young people among yourselves promote and live by an ethic of respecting and including all people , of all cultures, all ethnicities, all beliefs, all genders and sexual orientations, all capacities; of caring especially for the weak and vulnerable and marginalized; of resolving conflicts peacefully, rejecting violence, so that truly everyone counts, and counts equally.

It is inspiring that this conference is taking place in Myanmar at this moment in its history, when the nation is taking crucial steps toward these same objectives.

I hope that this conference helps to move all of us forward in concrete ways toward these goals. We in UNFPA are committed to doing everything we can to accompany and support you on that challenging and exciting journey.