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LATIN AMERICA: “Sexuality Is an Essential Part of Humanity”

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 10 2009 (IPS) - In an effort to promote the free enjoyment of human sexuality, separate from reproduction, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) launched the world’s first declaration of sexual rights in the Argentine capital on Wednesday.

“We want states to commit themselves to protecting these rights, and for the United Nations to adopt them in future meetings,” Carmen Barroso, IPPF regional director for the Western hemisphere, told IPS.

“Sexual Rights: An IPPF Declaration”, the result of two years’ work by a multi-disciplinary team, proposes that “sexuality is an essential part of our humanity,” and that its free expression “is a component of human rights.” The Declaration espouses “the entitlement to experience and enjoy sexuality independent of reproduction.”

The New York-based IPPF, which has offices in over 150 countries, provides training and technical assistance for the promotion and defence of sexual and reproductive health for men and women on every continent.

Barroso said that in Latin America, there is “inertia” on the part of governments, which agree to proposals for developing sexual health issues but do not translate them into public policies. There is also a “tremendously conservative” lobby in the United States, she added.

“The new administration” of U.S. President Barack Obama “is no longer exporting the obscurantist, anti-scientific and absurd ideology that demonises the use of condoms and argues that they do not provide protection against disease, but resistance to them continues in the region,” she said.

There are also “structural factors” in Latin America that hamper sexual rights, such as poverty, lack of education, gender inequality and other inequalities “between social classes, between ethnic groups, some of which are extremely underprivileged, and between regions, even within the same country,” she said.

For example, Argentine physician Enrique Berner, president of the Adolescent-2000 Health Foundation (FUSA 2000) and head of adolescent services at the “Dr. Cosme Argerich” Acute General Hospital in Buenos Aires, said at the launch ceremony that the teenage pregnancy rate in the south of the Argentine capital is three times the city average.

The south side is one of the most impoverished areas of the city, where more than 20 percent of pregnant mothers-to-be are under 18, compared with an overall average of less than seven percent for the capital.

Barroso, an expert on sexual and reproductive health, said human rights in general gained ground in the mid-20th century, and expanded in the 1990s with the recognition of children’s rights. In the mid-1990s, the U.N. affirmed reproductive rights, “but sexuality was tagged on as an afterthought,” she said.

“People talked about sexual and reproductive rights, but in fact they meant reproductive rights only,” she said. In 1995 at the World Conference on Women in Beijing, sexual rights were introduced in the negative, as “women’s right not to suffer harm, violence or coercion” in sexual intercourse, she said.

“It was a step forward, but no one talked about the positive right to sexual pleasure, which is only now beginning to be discussed,” she said. “That’s why the IPPF is offering this Declaration as a tool for progress toward a specific concept of sexual rights.”

The Declaration also recognises the sexual rights of persons under 18, who need individual protection based on the idea of their “evolving capacity to exercise rights on their own behalf.” According to this idea, parental authority eases off as young people progressively gain in decision-making autonomy.

In addition, the Declaration says that “all persons are entitled to the pursuit of a pleasurable sexuality” and “to choose whether or not to found a family and have children.”

“All women have the right to information, education and services necessary for the protection of reproductive health, safe motherhood and safe abortion,” it adds.

On Monday and Tuesday, regional experts including Barroso held the First Latin American Forum on Young People: Autonomy and Confidentiality in Buenos Aires, in order to share their experiences of providing sexual health services for under-age teenagers.

Chilean lawyer Lidia Casas of Diego Portales University told IPS that in the last few years the debate in Latin America “has centred on human reproduction” and on the restriction or distribution of contraceptive methods. “There is a state of denial about sexuality, which is excluded from the debate,” she said.

In her view, sexual rights “are absolutely invisible in the health services. The topic of pleasure simply does not exist in the consulting room, and it is only just beginning to emerge among men because of Viagra,” a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction.

The experts attending the forum agreed that one of the keys to making progress on the sexual rights agenda is education, which is also mentioned in the Declaration.

According to Barroso, health and education ministries in Latin America signed a commitment to include sexual health in school curricula by 2010, but in her view this is merely “a rhetorical commitment, without public policies to back it up.”

She said there is an abundance of pilot projects in the region that never spread to the rest of the country, and there are also examples in which sex education is limited to one biology class a year, where contraceptive methods may or may not be discussed.

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