On International Youth Day 2014, the Womenâ€™s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) joins advocates worldwide in calling for efforts to support young peopleâ€™s mental health, so that they can lead lives free from isolation and unnecessary shame, and openly seek and access the services and support they need to live full and healthy lives. In particular, WGNRR calls attention to the importance of full access to critical sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services, including safe and legal abortion, for young peopleâ€™s mental health and wellbeing.
Comprising 1.8 billion of the worldâ€™s population, young people aged 10-24 are currently the largest population of young people in human history, 90% of whom live in developing countries. As a result of various intersecting factors, young people in the Global South, particularly young women and girls, often have little or no access to SRH information and services, and experience unintended or unwanted pregnancies. In turn, adolescents and young women aged 15-24 account for 40% of all unsafe abortions worldwide, and three million unsafe abortions occur every year among this age group. Compared to older groups, moreover, adolescents are more likely to delay undertaking an abortion, resort to unskilled persons to perform it, use dangerous methods, or put off accessing health services when complications arise.
While the physical health risks that unsafe abortion can pose are grave, extensive and life-threatening, what is often overlooked is the toll that unsafe abortion and an inability to access SRH services can have on a young personâ€™s mental health. Young people in different countries have reported being turned away from SRH services, humiliated and shamed by healthcare providers for engaging and/or thinking of engaging in sexual activity, and being accused of â€œimmoralityâ€ and eroding â€œtraditionalâ€ values. Upon having an unwanted pregnancy, youth may also be reluctant or afraid of accessing SRH services, for fear of experiencing further shame, discrimination, and public exposure.  Moreover, in choosing to undergo an abortion, adolescents are likely to experience isolation and emotional stress because of a frequent lack, or perceived lack, of support from their parents or partners. Many youth have reported living in fear of emotional/physical abuse or eviction, should their parents or partners learn of their decision to have an abortion, and as such choose not to turn to their loved ones for support, further compounding their stress and isolation. As such, in being denied access to SRH services, and fearing ostracism from the greater community, young people may experience significant emotional turmoil, anxiety, psychological pain and trauma, all of which severely compromises their mental health and wellbeing, and in some cases places them at risk of depression and/or suicide.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are critical dimensions of any personsâ€™ health and wellbeing, and integral for not only their physical but also mental health. As stated by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC):
â€œAdolescent girlsâ€¦should have access to health services that are sensitive to their rights and particular needs. [â€¦] The Committee urges State partiesâ€¦to develop and implement programmes that provide access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, contraception and safe abortion services where abortion is not against the law, adequate and comprehensive obstetric care and counsellingâ€¦â€
The international community has a moral imperative to secure womenâ€™s and girlsâ€™ SRHR, for which it is essential that all young people have access to comprehensive and youth-friendly SRH services, including the right to safe and legal abortion, encompassing accessible, confidential, sensitive, and high-quality procedures for pregnancy termination, free of marital and/or parental consent requirements. Forced pregnancy violates young peopleâ€™s human rights and places their physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as those of their families and communities at great risk. Stigma and misinformation surrounding abortion and young peopleâ€™s sexuality must be eradicated.
In this sense, we call on all youth advocates, members, activists and allies to join us on August 12th 2014, in highlighting the importance of young peopleâ€™s SRHR for their mental health.
Young peopleâ€™s mental health matters! This International Youth Day letâ€™s hold governments accountable, to ensure that young people are able to exercise their SRHR as a necessary condition to fully realize their mental health!
As one of its priority areas, WGNRR advocates for the recognition of young peoplesâ€™ sexual and reproductive rights as human rights, including their right to safe and legal abortion, for which one of our key days of action is the upcoming September 28, Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. For more information about September 28 and ways you can get involved, watch this space!
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has showed concern by the fact that â€œ[â€¦] various factors, including limited availability of contraceptives, poor reproductive health education and the requirement of parental consent have resulted in an increasing number of illegal abortions among girls.â€ United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Kyrgyzstan, 24th Sess., para. 45, U.N.Doc.CRC/C/15/Add.127 (2000)
Please see the story of Samuel, who upon accessing Kividea, a youth-serving organization in Tanzania, shared his experience in being unable to access SRH information and services.
 Please see the 2013 PostAbortion Care (PAC) Consortium video, Youth Voices on Post-Abortion Care, sharing young peopleâ€™s perspectives from Nepal, Senegal, Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya on family planning, unintended pregnancy, postabortion care, and comprehensive health services for youth.
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 4 (2003): Adolescent Health and Development in the Context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 33rd Sess, para 31, U.N. Doc CRC/GC/2003/4 (2003).