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Q&A: How Sex Education Programs Can Shape a Better Future

Aline Jenckel interviews JOVANA RIOS CISNERO, a member of the Asociación Panameña para el Planeamiento de la Familia (Panamanian Family Planning Association)

UNITED NATIONS, May 18 2012 (IPS) - In Latin American countries and in the Caribbean, where income disparities are among the greatest in the world, too many people often lack access to comprehensive health services and information needed to live healthy lives.

Jovana Ríos Cisnero promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights with the Panamanian Family Planning Association. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jovana Ríos Cisnero

That’s why comprehensive, rights-based sexuality education programs are so crucial, particularly today and for the largest generation of adolescents and youth the world has ever seen, says Jovana Ríos Cisnero, who promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights on behalf of the Asociación Panameña para el Planeamiento de la Familia (Panamanian Family Planning Association), which is associated with the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF/WHR).

The lack of access is also why IPPF’s member associations have launched community-based models for giving vulnerable populations access to health care and education, which include contraception, basic health services and education on sexuality.

“We believe that to achieve good health, you do not only need accurate information, but also quality services and knowledge of your sexual and reproductive rights,” says Cisnero, who focuses especially on women, youth and other vulnerable groups.

U.N. Correspondent Aline Jenckel interviewed Cisnero about the work of IPPS/WHR on young peoples’ issues and the impact of their services on the ability of women to make important, informed decisions regarding their own lives.

Q: In many Latin American countries, access to safe and legal abortions is limited, so many women seeking abortions are forced to undergo clandestine and unsafe procedures. How does IPPF/WHR advocate at the policy level for laws that give women the right to safe and legal abortions?

Unsafe abortion is one of the most serious and preventable social justice and public health issues in the world. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, where abortion is legally restricted in most instances, harmful, clandestine practices have damaging health effects and claim the lives of thousands of women, particularly poor women, each year—in the region, it is estimated that 95 percent of abortions are unsafe.

Extensive independent research shows that restricting access to abortion does not make it go away; it only makes it unsafe. Health officials and political leaders in more and more countries are examining abortion policies to prevent these needless deaths.

In our country, we work with a wide range of civil society organisations and allies to expand existing laws and remove restrictions. Argentina and Brazil, for example, have recently decriminalised abortion in certain circumstances.

All of these incremental victories should be followed by similar decisions that address access to safe abortion as a public health issue rather than one of ideology.

Q: IPPF is also combating the stigma of homosexuality, as gays are often discriminated against in their communities. Have these projects changed attitudes about and fostered greater acceptance of LGBT individuals?

I am determined that educational efforts and the campaigns that many of our member associations have undertaken throughout the region have contributed to a reduction of the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQI individuals face too often.

This is not an easy or quick change, but I truly believe that by sensitising policymakers and educators and by raising adolescents and youth differently, future generations will live in a different kind of world.

That’s why sexuality education programs that are comprehensive and rights-based are so important, particularly for today’s generation of adolescents and youth— the largest the world has ever seen.

Q: In many Latin American countries, clinic services can only be afforded by rich people, or the health care system is either bankrupt or of poor quality. In Brazil and Haiti, for instance, with BENFAM and PROFAMIL, you provide people from all kinds of socioeconomic levels with free clinic visits and other forms of health care. Have these projects helped women achieve self-determination?

Absolutely. Imagine, for example, a pregnant woman in rural Brazil experiencing hemorrhaging goes to a hospital for help but is turned away and dies soon after. Or imagine being an adolescent girl in Peru who is unable to access condoms to protect herself from HIV infection simply because of her age.

Deciding whether to have children, how many to have, or even whether to have sex and with whom, is a fundamental right and a basic human need.

But sexual and reproductive rights go beyond that to include the right of every individual to attain the highest possible standard of sexual and reproductive health.

These rights are at the heart of dignity and equality. When a woman is denied these basic rights, she is denied the means to determine her own future, protect her health and exercise her basic human rights.

That’s why I do the work I do—these rights are not only fundamental to the well-being of women everywhere; they are critical to the vitality and health of communities, nations and the world.


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