Young people and the law: meeting the sexual and reproductive health needs of young people in Asia and the Pacific
Across the Asia-Pacific region, 23 million teenagers aged between 15 and 19 are already married, and in 2019 alone, there were an estimated 3.7 million births to 15 -19-year-old girls in the region, most in the context of early marriage. The minimum age at which a young person can legally get married, consent to sex, and access sexual and reproductive health services all have significant consequences for their health and wellbeing.
In the new report, Young People and the Law: Laws and Policies Impacting Young People’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region (2020 Update), UNFPA, together with partner agencies UNESCO, UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNDP, Youth LEAD and Y-Peer Asia-Pacific Center, examine the current situation of laws and policies impacting young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Asia and the Pacific. The report highlights that legislation needs to cohesively support young people, not only so they are protected from abuse and poor health outcomes but also so that they are supported in their right to make their own decisions about their bodies, health and relationships as they journey from childhood to adulthood. The 2020 review is an update to the comprehensive 2013 joint agency report “Young people and the law in Asia and the Pacific: a review of laws and policies affecting young people's access to sexual and reproductive health and HIV services”, led by UNESCO.
The sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people can raise complex issues, often accompanied by strong reaction and emotion. Legal, social, cultural and religious dimensions intertwine in complicated and often contentious ways. Disagreements arise over conflicting ideas- including in the law - about the child’s best interest or how to protect young people and their rights. Strict legal standards that do not recognize the evolving capacity of young people or enable their agency, in practice, can end up creating barriers to young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.
For instance, laws that importantly intend to protect children and adolescents from sexual abuse – such as the age of consent to sex – can also serve to criminalize consensual sex between adolescents under 18 years. Yet evidence has shown that punitive laws preventing adolescents from engaging in sexual activity are not effective at reducing premarital sex. In cases where any sexual activity under the age of 18, consensual or not, is considered in the law as sexual assault, healthcare providers are mandated to report sexual activity of youth. This further deters sexually active young people from seeking sexual and reproductive health services due to fear of prosecution.
Similarly, the World Health Organization has recommended that young people be able to access contraceptives without spousal or parental consent requirements, as mandatory consent deters young people from accessing necessary health services. Yet in the Asia-Pacific region, laws persist on the requirement of parental consent for a child under 18 to access contraceptives. In some country contexts the situation is even further confounded where – at the same time - children aged 15 and over can consent to an HIV test without this parental or guardian consent. Expanding access to HIV testing while restricting access to contraceptives presents a contradictory legal conundrum to young people and their families. Ultimately, this negatively impacts young people who have access to some sexual health services but not others.
Recognizing and fulfilling the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people may be complex; however, legislation can and should support and empower young people. For the more than 1 billion children and youth between 10 to 24 years old in the Asia-Pacific region, governments need to recognize the synergistic interactions between policy and the law, and the ability of young people to access sexual and reproductive health services. Only when legislation is integrated, cohesive and respectful of young people’s agency can their health and wellbeing be fully realized.
Main photo credit: ©weforchange