It’s Time for the World to Have “The Talk”

by Kathy Calvin, President and CEO of the UN Foundation

Can you remember having “the talk” with your parents or a trusted adult?

It was probably embarrassing. But if it went well, it gave you the information you needed to be in charge of your body and your future.

I’m writing this post because we all need to make sure today’s teens have the right to decide their futures — and this includes talking about sex, and especially contraception.

Today we have the largest-ever generation of young people — about half of the global population is under age 30.

But it’s not just about the numbers; it’s about where young people live and the opportunities they have — or don’t have. The majority of the world’s young people live in the poorest countries.

These young people are entering their childbearing years, and unless we meet their contraceptive needs, poor countries will see explosive population growth over the next several decades, creating even more challenges for them to get out of poverty.

The truth is: While we’ve made unprecedented progress helping more children survive, we’ve dropped the ball when it comes to giving them a seat at the table when they become adolescents. And we all know if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Worse, we have no way to have a meaningful inter-generational dialogue because we barely speak the same language — and I’m not talking about English versus Arabic versus Swahili. I’m talking about old versus young.

The median age in the United States is 38 years old, while the median age in Uganda is 16. The median age in Germany is 46 years old while the median age in Yemen is 19.

At my age, I can barely remember the first time I talked about sex, let alone understand what today’s young people go through. As older people, we learned to talk about sexual and reproductive health in a different era, so we don’t have the skills to communicate with this generation.

This begs the question: If the older generation in power isn’t having a dialogue with the younger generation out of power, how can we possibly be meeting their needs?

The short answer is: We’re not. This is true for all adolescents, but especially when it comes to girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Sadly, in the 21st century, stigma, shame, and repression around girls’ and women’s sexuality are still all too commonplace.

Let me give you three examples.

First, let’s go back in time to puberty. The word itself makes me feel weird. By maybe that’s because I was a girl when it happened.

Have you ever thought about how that life change affects boys and girls totally differently? When a young boy reaches puberty, life opens up for him. When a young girl reaches that milestone, life can — and frequently does — begin to collapse around her.

The people in her life often become more controlling, she gets confined to her home, and in many communities she is at the risk of child marriage or female genital mutilation.

The second example, related to puberty, is a woman’s period.

An NGO conducted a survey about how the world would be different if men had periods. A significant number of people responded that men would openly brag about their periods. They also thought men would congratulate each other for overcoming another month’s battle against nature.

The third example of how society denies female sexuality is more sobering: There are 225 million girls and women around the world who don’t want to get pregnant. But they aren’t using modern contraception — because of lack of access, lack of information, and lack of control.

As a consequence, they can lose their educations, their dreams, and sometimes, even their lives. Worldwide, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for girls ages 15–19.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can imagine a different future for today’s adolescent girls — a future where a girl learns about her sexual and reproductive health, has access to a choice among modern contraceptives, and is empowered to use them.

In this future, she has children if she wants and when she is ready — giving her the chance to finish her education, earn an income to take care of her family, and help break the cycle of poverty around the world.

In fact, contraception is one of the best investments we can make to end poverty, reduce child deaths, reduce maternal deaths, reduce HIV/AIDS, and increase education levels.

So what do we need to do? We need to move from taboo to action.

First, we need to change attitudes to value girls as much as boys and to remove the stigma around their sexual and reproductive health.

Second, we need to learn from what’s working. Colorado, for example, has gotten results because it:

  1. Went to schools, where young people go;
  2. Used social media, where young people live;
  3. Found out what information young people were looking for online…and used that to teach.
  4. Used health centers — and made them appropriate for girls;
  5. And made contraceptives affordable so girls and women could choose what works best for them;

This is what has worked.

Next, we need to translate commitments into real change.

Last year, the world came together at the United Nations, and 193 countries agreed on an agenda that includes gender equality and “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.” We need to hold governments of the world to this promise they made.

Finally, to return to where I started, we need to start talking about sex — at a macro-level to shine a light on what’s happening and how we can change it, and on a micro-level, with individual girls and young people around the world.

Our problems have been caused by excluding girls; our solutions will come from including them.

Believe me: Girls know what they want. I’ve talked to girls around the world, from students in the U.S. to refugees in Kenya to girls in Indonesia, and they’re clear: They want control over their bodies, their health, and their futures.

Two years ago, we asked more than 500 girls living in poverty about their challenges, but also their hopes and dreams.

A girl in Pakistan told us, “I want to abolish discrimination because girls and women are not inferior to anybody else.”

A girl in Egypt said: “I want to live freely. I don’t want people to dictate what I do.”

And a girl in Ethiopia summed it perfectly, saying: “I want everyone to realize that women are capable of doing everything.”

Girls around the world are speaking out — and right now our answer has been silence. Instead of ignoring their voices, let’s elevate them. Let’s talk — about girls, for girls, and especially with girls.

Think about the girls in your life! When is the last time you really listened to their hopes, fears, and dreams? For as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Empowering girls to realize their dreams is my passion and my mission, and I hope you will embrace it as yours.

Learn more about this and other global issues at unfoundationblog.org.