"Young people have a unique vision and we must be heard" - Defending sexual and reproductive rights in South America

By Camille Roch

We hear from six activists from South America working together through Amnesty’s It’s My Body! programme empowering young people aged 13 to 19 years old to claim and promote their sexual and reproductive rights.

They’re from Peru, Argentina or Chile, yet all share the same goal: make sure they have the power and freedom to demand and access their sexual and reproductive rights. Over five years these young activists will work together to empower others to make informed decisions about their bodies and sexuality, and provide their peers with information and training on issues related to sexual and reproductive rights.

As they meet for the first time in Lima, Peru, we learn what their participation means to them, and how they intend to change attitudes in the region. 

Young people have a unique vision of the reality that we experience first-hand and we must be heard and taken into account if we want to bring a solution to issues that affect everyone.
Lautaro, 16, from Argentina

What do you mean when you talk about sexual and reproductive rights?

Jesus, 16 years old, from Chile: “We refer to every right related to the possibility to live our sexuality the way we want, as long as we do not violate or usurp other people’ rights. In my opinion, sexual and reproductive rights are the most complex as many people are not completely aware of them. This creates controversy because not everyone knows how to exercise or claim them. No matter our faith, gender, sex, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation, you must know them and nobody can or should deprive you of them.”

How can you help other people defend their rights?

Joaquin and Guadelope, 16 years old, from Argentina: “In general, people don’t know how to claim or defend their sexual and reproductive rights because they don’t know that they are human rights. Fortunately, today, there are young people in the region who are united to change this reality, by carrying out empowerment workshops, giving talks, getting active in politics, debating with friends, and challenging ideologies within their families. We believe that we are witnessing a phase of tremendous change in society, particularly for young people. Because we finally realize that sitting still is not the solution. The world can change but it will not do so by itself. We need to constantly advocate for these rights in order for our friends and families to defend them. Starting from a conversation with a stranger on the train to talking with our families over dinner. We believe we must fervently defend our rights to spread this commitment to others.”

Joaquin, from Argentina, and Sofia, from Chile (in the foreground) exchange their point of view on issues related to sexual and reproductive rights at the kick-off meeting of the It's My Body! programme. Lima, Peru, May 2016 © Amnesty International

What motivated you to take part?

Tomy, 16 years old, from Peru: “Because I want to see a change in my region. Because I no longer want to be the problem but part of solving the problem. Because they talk about me without asking me. Decisions are being taken to improve my wellbeing, but which do not. For me it’s important that this is not a taboo but an issue that is given the importance it deserves. It is important for me as I want to be a young man who does things well and I want to have the knowledge I need to fully enjoy my rights and because I want my friends and other young people to have this too.”

Why is it important to you?

Jesus, 16 years old, from Chile: “Because the rights of millions of children, young people, and even adults, are violated, without them knowing how to stand up for them. We believe that we can offer our help for this. I have been discriminated all my life due to my sexual orientation and I’ve always asked myself, ‘Why?’ Now, I understand that this is not because some people are born willing to discriminate, but the problem is that society normalizes it. This is why I decided to defend anyone who cannot stand up for their sexual and reproductive rights because I know how it feels to be given the wrong information, to be told that I have to behave in a ‘masculine’ way, or that I won’t ever have kids, and the thousands of other stereotypes I endure every day.”

Why do you think young people are getting together across South America to defend sexual and reproductive rights?

Lautaro, 16 years old, from Argentina: “Because we share the same lack of progress in guaranteeing sexual and reproductive rights at a social, cultural and political level. It is important for us to work together because we know the reality of our region, which though varied, shares the same general lack of policies regarding sexual and reproductive rights. Working together will give us a stronger political impact. As young people we have a unique vision of the reality that we experience first-hand and so we must be heard and taken into account if we want to bring about change or a structural transformation to the way we approach these issues that affect us all.

Compare and contrast. Joaquin, Tomy and Guadelope discuss the challenges they face in their countries at the kick-off meeting of the It's My Body! programme. Lima, Peru, May 2016 © Lautaro Garcia

What differences do you think there are among countries and how can this affect your work?

Jesus, 16 years old, from Chile: “The main difference is that the three countries have very different historical backgrounds which influence the way the countries are now; even though we do not live under a ‘dictatorship’, our rights are violated to such an extent it almost feels like we do. In Peru, for example, there are forced sterilizations, many teenage pregnancies, and the change of government could influence the way we can exercise our rights in the future. In Chile, we experience all sorts of discrimination on a daily basis, (xenophobia, discrimination against LGBTI, machismo, etc.), or the decriminalization of abortion under three clauses. In Argentina, where they have laws that could help a lot of people, they are not enforced. This directly affects our freedom when exercising our rights and that is the struggle, our struggle.”

Is there anything that worries you about advocating for sexual and reproductive rights?

Sofia, 16 years old, from Chile: “For me, the biggest obstacles to working together across the region will be the differences in the social barriers and ways to organize that exist in each country. It is difficult to think of a standard approach, as we are all so different. I’m also a bit worried about the specific focus, even though sexual and reproductive rights are violated every day, we suffer many other violations that prevent us from developing fully. How can we expect a young person to fight for their rights if they do not have access to education? How can we expect to empower young people on sexual and reproductive rights if they spend their time working to support their households? In my country and in others, situations like this, and some even harsher, are taking place, but this is precisely where our biggest challenge lies, and that’s where we need to focus our efforts.

The 5-year programme It’s my Body!, funded by Operation's Day Work with money collected by Norvegian young people, takes place across Argentina, Chile and Peru and aims to promote sexual and reproductive rights for young activists between the age of 13 and 19 through human rights education, campaigning and advocacy.

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