When it comes to sex, let youth take the lead!

By Julia Suryakusuma

Julia Surykusuma (c) Gender and Excellence 2013

Julia Surykusuma (c) Gender and Excellence 2013

How old were you when you first had sex? Was it before or after you got married? Don'€™t be shy, you can tell me!

Let'€™s face it, most people become sexually active in their teens. Some '€” in parts of the world where child brides are still common '€” are married. In traditional and conservative societies, the only legitimate sex is marital sex.

Married or not, young people don'€™t have access to information on sex and are also denied sexual health services. In most countries, you can be tried for a criminal offense by the age of 14. In some countries, the minimum age for criminal responsibility can be as low as 8 '€” as is the case in Indonesia. Isn'€™t it strange that you'€™re old enough to be a criminal, but not old enough to make decisions about your own sexual health?

Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and comprehensive sexual education (CSE) were two of the main issues brought up at the Youth Conference that preceded the 8th Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR), held in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on Feb. 23-26. This was consistent with the theme of the conference, which was '€œEnsuring Universal Access to SRHR for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific

Like the sixth conference held in Yogyakarta, which I attended in 2011, the Myanmar event covered a wide and diverse range of issues (see '€œSexualities: The straight and very, very narrow'€, The Jakarta Post, Feb. 11, 2011). But I was so inspired by the speakers at the Youth Conference, I decided to focus on the issues they raised.

After all, youth have much more at stake in the future, so it might be best to let them lead, seeing how adults have screwed so many things up in the world anyway.

There were three speakers at the Youth Conference plenary:

  • Gaoshan Junjian, a youth analyst of the UNFPA office in Beijing, spoke on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE);

  • Sarah Soysa, an advisor for the FRIDA feminist fund and a coordinator of the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network, spoke on gender issues and trafficking

  • Jeffry Acaba, Education and Research Lead of Youth LEAD, the Asia-Pacific Network of Young Populations in Thailand, spoke on SRHR Law and Policy.

I had met Gaoshan at the 6th APCRSHR in Yogyakarta when he was just 19-years-old and presenting a peer education project he was leading in college.

I was impressed by him then. Five years later, I continue to be impressed by his commitment.

Jeffry Acaba said words like '€œpolicy'€ and '€œlaw'€ could be daunting for young people, making them reluctant to be involved in policy development.

Asia Pacific Region

Asia Pacific Region

'€œThis perception must change'€, he said. '€œI may not have a legal background but as a 21-year-old, I have helped communities table policies at the municipality level.'€

All three speakers urged youth to be involved and advocate for their issues, not just on SRHR, but also on education, employment and peace-building '€” issues that affect them directly.

In the main conference, there were also adults advocating for youth. Justine Sass, regional HIV/AIDS advisor for Asia-Pacific and Gender Focal Point at the UNESCO office in Bangkok, gave a compelling presentation about the legal and policy barriers to young people'€™s sexual and reproductive health.

Justine pointed out that there are one billion young people aged 10-24 in the Asia-Pacific.


'€œOne in seven girls have given birth by the age of 18, often in the context of high unmet need for contraception. €œNearly two-thirds of adolescent pregnancies in the region are unintended, contributing to a significant, although under-reported, burden of unsafe abortion. And up to 10 percent of males and 20 percent of females report having had a sexually transmitted infection or symptom in the last 12 months.'€

There are many issues related to youth SRHR, some of them contradictory. For example, the legal age of consent to sex is important for protecting young people from sexual abuse and exploitation. However, this also means that young people are deterred from accessing services when they engage in consensual sex with their peers, for fear of disclosure.

Most countries prohibit marriage under 18 to protect children from child marriage. But as child marriage decreases, young unmarried people who have sex before 18 don'€™t have the protections reserved for married couples.

So, what'€™s the way forward? This is what Justine proposes:

  • recognize young people'€™s capacity to make independent decisions with regards to their sexual behavior and health;

  • eliminate marital status as a precondition for services;

  • provide operational guidance for health workers;

  • decriminalize sexual activity between consenting young people; and

  • support youth engagement in documenting human rights violations.

At the end of the conference, participants '€” advocates, activists, youth, academics and other stakeholders '€” drew up a Naypyitaw Commitment to strengthen the voice of all people in the Asia Pacific region to call for full recognition of SRHR.

In addition to Justine'€™s proposals, there are two other important points:

  • eliminate legal barriers to the provision of early, safe and accessible termination of unwanted pregnancy in the Asia-Pacific region; and

  • elimination of institutional disrespect for LGBTQI, and fostering international respect for sexual rights.

These last two points were adopted by acclamation, and apply to all countries of the Asia-Pacific region '€” including those where there is currently strong government opposition to both abortion and homosexuality.

Wow, all of this sounds great on paper! Obviously I can'€™t help thinking of the Indonesian context where religious conservatism and moralism seems to override considerations of human rights, scientific fact, state law and even the Constitution. The current crackdown on LGBT Indonesians is a case in point (see '€œState hysteria: Leading the nation with homophobia'€, the Jakarta Post, Feb. 24').

As Jeffry says, it'€™s true that policies may be driven by culture, societal beliefs and religion. But at the same time, there are international standards written up by international committees that all governments agree on. So, can governments in the Asia-Pacific follow the example of young people like Gaosan and Jeffry, and seriously commit?

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About the Author

Julia Suryakusuma is a columnist, author, activist, feminist, and cultural critic. She contributes regularly to the Jakarta Post, and is the author of “Sex, Power and Nation: an Anthology of Writings, 1979-2003" (Metafor, 2004), and “Julia’s Jihad--Tales of the Politically, Sexually, and Religiously Incorrect: Living in the Chaos of the Biggest Muslim Democracy" (Komunitas Bambu, 2013). You can follow her on Twitter @JihadJulia.


Note: This post was originally published in the Jakarta Post (16 March 2016).