Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights is crucial knowledge that girls and women need to have and access whenever necessary. We need SRHR because, for young people, their sexual and reproductive health and rights are a key part of their lives – whether they are sexually active or not. Helping adolescents protect their health is an important public health priority. This knowledge in turn enables young people to make more informed decisions regarding their own sexual reproductive health and rights (Evelo, 2018) and lead healthy, long and productive lives. Beyond benefiting young people themselves, increased investment in adolescent sexual and reproductive health contributes to broader development goals, especially improvements in the overall status of women and eventually, reduction in poverty among families. Nevertheless, such rights are currently being denied or restricted in many parts of the world (What is SRHR, 2020) coupled with the fact that many women are not yet aware of what constitutes sexual and reproductive health and rights.
SRHR is an umbrella for various issues that affect men and women alike. It represents four separate areas: sexual health, sexual rights, reproductive health, and reproductive rights (John, 2014). Sexual health is physical, mental, and social well-being when. It means being free from sexual illnesses and violence. Reproductive health ensures a healthy reproductive system and healthy pregnancies through access to healthcare, medication, and education.
Sexual rights is the ability to decide without coercion about one’s sexuality. It means being able to freely make decisions about partners, privacy, and pleasure. In Kenya, most girls and young women are not free to exercise their sexual rights due to hindrances like early marriage which in most cases is forced marriage. Girls as young as 13 years old are expected to marry as soon as they reach puberty. At this age, most girls don’t fully understand their sexuality and are in no way prepared to make informed decisions about their sexuality. Rape is also an assault on sexual rights. This issue is prevalent due to the rape culture that exists in the society, where women’s bodies are highly sexualized and rape is defended and justified as a victim’s fault, through condoning statements like, ‘The girl was ill dressed-In a manner to suggest sexual intentions’, ‘why was she walking out alone at night?’, ‘We have been dating for a while and she refused to have sex with me.’ Worst still, in some other families, these girls are then forced to marry their assaulter, a decision most people would not make willingly. Traditionally, the community wouldn’t see wrong in that because they will live to raise their child if a pregnancy resulted from the rape act and ‘live happily ever after’ with her rapist husband. The likelihood is that the girl will be raped for the rest of her life and never exercise her sexual and reproductive rights.
Everyone deserves the right to make his or her own sexual decisions, something that is not possible without laws and public support to enforce these rights.
Reproductive rights include the basic right and freedom of all couples and individuals to maintain personal bodily autonomy, to decide if and when to have children or not to have children, to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so. Every individual should have the right to control their lives by having children on their own terms and parent the children they have in safe and sustainable communities, free from discrimination, coercion and violence. Reproductive rights also include the right to receive education about STIs/STDs (Sexually Transmitted Infections/Diseases), the right to Menstrual Health and protection from practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Another main aspect of SRHR is Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) that focuses on gender norms, power in relationships, and participatory teaching methods on SRHR. CSE’s interactive and participatory manner has been shown to improve adolescent health outcomes, such as low incidences of sexually transmitted infections and rates of teen pregnancy (The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), 2021). Effective CSE programs do not teach abstinence-only ( young people who have only received abstinence-only education are less likely to use any kind of protection on first intercourse); It includes modules on personal empowerment; Train teachers adequately and on an ongoing basis in using interactive and participatory methods and discussing gender equality, sexuality, and human rights topics; Offers linkages to protective factors in the environment (e.g., school safety programs, latrines in schools, cash transfers linked to school retention for girls, girls’ financial literacy and savings programs, campaigns against violence including male-on-male violence, etc.); Refers participants to health and other services; Tailor delivery models and key concepts on gender and relationships for younger children, before gender and sexual norms become solidified.
The provision of information to young people needs to be improved and expanded using a variety of methods—including providing family life education to young people in schools and reaching those who are not attending school.
In developing countries, early marriage and early childbearing are most common among poor women and those with little education, two factors that are intricately related. Whether they are single or married, most adolescent women are poor or without monetary resources of their own—some because they are still in school, others because they are married with little or no control over household income, they are not working or they earn very low wages. (International Planned Parenthood Federation). Inadequate knowledge about contraception – most women do not know of a source for contraceptives and how to obtain health services. The high risk of sexual violence and little independence in deciding on the timing of births or use of contraception are other reasons why many adolescent women in developing countries are especially vulnerable. In addition, in most parts of the developing world, unmarried adolescents often face societal disapproval and condemnation if they are sexually active. The poorer the region, the greater the chances are that adolescent girls are married young and green. Inadequate knowledge remains a major barrier for adolescents.
What are the implications of understanding, teaching and investing in SRHR?
Preventing/Reducing unintended pregnancies among adolescent women would greatly reduce the number of maternal and newborn deaths. It would improve educational and employment opportunities for young women and in turn, contribute to improvements in the status of women overall, greater family savings, reduction in poverty and an increase in economic growth- For young women in developing countries to benefit from longer schooling, gain productive experience in the labour market before marriage and childbearing, and develop a readiness for parenthood, they need access to the contraceptive and reproductive health services that will enable them to protect their health and avoid unintended pregnancies. Meeting the contraceptive needs of married and sexually active unmarried adolescents would help reduce unintended pregnancies (including those that end in unsafe abortion), thereby also reducing maternal deaths and ill health. Contraceptive services should be provided in a manner that does not stigmatize sexually active adolescents and be offered in a respectful and confidential way.
Evelo, J. (2018, April 8). Choice for Youth and Sexuality. Retrieved from womendeliver.org: https://womendeliver.org/2018/engaging-young-people-beginning-srhr/
International Planned Parenthood Federation. (n.d.). Facts on the Sexual and Reproductive Health Of Adolescent Women in the Developing World. New York:Guttmacher Institute: www.guttmacher.org.
John, J. (2014, July 28). Demand equity. Retrieved from globalcitizen.org: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/what-is-srhr/
Rebecca J. Cook , Mahmoud F. Fathalla. (1996). p. 22.
The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). (2021). COMPREHENSIVE SEXUALITY EDUCATION: WHAT WE KNOW. NEW YORK: IWHC.ORG.
What is SRHR. (2020, August 26). Retrieved from srhrforall.org: https://srhrforall.org/what-is-srhr/
Written by Nurat Wamaya – Advocacy and Communications Officer LGLI (Kenya)