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Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Adolescents Development and Rights Protection

Laura Amore - University Center for International Cooperation of the University of Parma

According to The Lancet today 1.8 billion are 10-24 year olds and nearly 90% of them live in low- and middle-income countries. The State of the World's Children UNICEF Report (2011) states that millions adolescents across the world are denied their basic rights to quality education, health care, protection and exposed to abuse and exploitation. Especially as a result of poor health systems and societal conditions, including customary attitudes and harmful traditional practices, young people living in developing countries suffer from an unhealthy environment, inadequate or inappropriate health services in everyday life.

Adolescence is often conceptualized as an in-between stage but some literature acknowledges Adolescent-hood as a developmental period that has specific meaning and presents the adolescent with specific problems in its early, middle, and late phases (Maier, H.W., 1965; Konopka, G., 1976).

Mental, emotional, psychological needs are key aspects at this stage of life and have to be addressed in a very holistic approach by youth development programs and public health sectors. Health problems such as depression or anemia, among others, are experienced by many millions of adolescents. Other endangering behaviors, from physical inactivity to bad nutrition or tobacco/alcohol use, are initiated during adolescence including sexual behaviors leading to HIV, STD infections, early /unwanted pregnancy and child delivery.

Environmental and urban challenges for modern day adolescents have incredibly increased, enhancing myriad of daily stressors identified as contributing factors of psychosocial distress among urban adolescents. Numerous are the factors (e.g., violence, poor housing, drug use, environmental degradation...) that can affect the development of urban adolescents, in general, and minority-group adolescents, in particular, exposed to those factors on a daily basis (Miller, D. and Townsend A., 2005). Additional factors to mention are, over the past decades, media exposure and pressure (including internet and social networks) with two main considerable effects: one on the physical health i.e. time spent using the Internet -in some contexts- replaces time doing physical activities, the other on psychological development of adolescents i.e. body's image/body dissatisfaction, self-esteem, socialization problems (McCabe M.P. and Ricciardelli L.A., 2003; Dohnt, H. and Tiggemann, M., 2006). Identify urban hassles and chronic stressors experienced by adolescents should lead towards a more appropriate response by youth development programs and larger policy making.

A right-based approach to Adolescent and Youth Development

Adolescents development, as the larger process of human development, is normatively based on international human rights standards.

Although the term ‘adolescents’ is not always clearly mentioned in international conventions, declarations or treaties, all adolescents have rights under:

Children and adolescents are not a homogenous group and their ability as rights holders (ability to participate in the realization of their rights) varies as well as the capacity to express their needs depending on a wide range of personal, social and cultural factors. Under CRC children and adolescents (under 18) are equally considered, although certain articles are of more relevance to young children - e.g. basic survival - while others are more significant for older children - e.g. protection from sexual exploitation and military recruitment, reproductive rights. Although not specifically stressed by the CRC as such, reproductive rights are concretely outlined in-there as part of the most basic human rights and community development principles that apply to adolescents.

The large spectrum of vulnerabilities and needs of children at all ages is legally protected by the over-arching framework for children's rights represented by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that holds Governments legally accountable for failing to meet the needs of children.

Human rights not only create entitlements for rights-holders, but they also create duties for States.

Programming in favour of the adolescent girl and boy development is to be done through a Human Rights Based Approach, a conceptual and operational framework directed to promoting and protecting human rights.

Applying a HRBA (to policy making and program action plans etc.) begins with a situation assessment and analysis. The focus of the process is set on the inequities and inequalities, to address the discriminatory practices and the causes that allow a situation that ultimately results in the denial of human rights. According to the United Nations, three elements are essential attributes for such an approach: 1. the aim for the progressive achievement of all human rights. 2. identification of rights holders and corresponding duty-bearers (whose capacities are to be strengthened) 3. use of human rights principles as baseline all along the process (formulation, implementation, monitoring...).

Critical reflections on the HRBA

Research has been carried on the collaborative nexus among a rights-based approach to a specific sector - e.g. health - and the social determinants of it - focusing on the inequities as well as on the power structure (Chapman, A.R, 2010). Critical comments are:

  • a rights-based approach is meant to address inequalities and inequities in health outcomes;
  • the emphasis is not on equality in social or economic position thus poverty seems to remain an unaddressed issue under the human rights based paradigm.

Similarly, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes the difficulty in realizing human rights for Indigenous people who have been disadvantaged on a systemic level by historical discrimination and dispossession over past centuries. In the framework of a human rights based approach, one would expect this to lead towards the obligation to protect disadvantaged members of society and to the broad concept of social justice. But the debate is still open and, along with it, the conceptual notion of poverty as a violation of human rights remains unclear (Doz Costa F., 2008) and still see as a rhetorical declaration only expressing moral condemnation since - as the notion of inequality in social or economic position - it doesn't entail binding obligations for identified duty-bearers.

According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the "right to health is closely related to, and dependent upon, the realization of other human rights, among them the rights to food, housing, work, and education", (indivisibility and interdependence of rights in the human rights approach) but the centrality of income poverty / capability deprivation / social exclusion as grounds of discrimination in achieving human rights is not an evidence either for experts nor courts.

In conclusion, applying a HRBA to adolescents health and development it's not a mere exercise of interpretation of rights and identification of holders and duty bearers, but a wide process whose expected policy changes relate to broad perspectives and immediate and long term outcomes within a wide social, cultural and economic context. Moreover the focus of the process - set on the inequities and inequalities -shouldn't be stated in the negative form (as non-discrimination) anymore, but in a positive form that requires at least minimum standards of human dignity for everyone.