“Sexual Rights” Endangers Efforts to End Child Marriage

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | October 16, 2014

NEW YORK, October 17 (C-Fam) A UN panel on ending child marriage got unexpected pushback last week from the star panelist after a “youth specialist” stated people have the “right to sexual pleasure.” Zambia’s ambassador made clear her country will not budge on outlawing sodomy.

The unusual display of disagreement exposed fault lines between groups touting abortion and lesbian, homosexual and transgender rights, and the African officials they are wooing.

The fiercest debates within the UN occur around topics that enjoy consensus. Right now, as diplomats negotiate resolutions on child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and violence against women, not a single voice defends these practices.

The proposed solutions, not the problems, generate conflict.

The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) – a pro-abortion and homosexual rights group – arranged last week’s panel on ending child marriage. Zambia’s ambassador, a co-sponsor, kicked it off by calling for recognizing women’s “sexual and reproductive health and rights” (SRHR) as a key aspect of addressing the forced marriage of young girls.

The term SRHR is not formally defined, unlike the phrases “sexual and reproductive health” and “reproductive rights,” which were framed by the 1994 Cairo agreement on population and development.

SRHR implies the concept of “sexual rights,” a phrase commonly used by pro-LGBT advocacy groups. It is also favored by pro-abortion groups seeking to move beyond the Cairo standard – which defers to countries to set their own abortion laws – and instead attempt to establish an international right to abortion.

Ending child marriage is not controversial. No government defends the practice, oftentimes driven by poverty and lack of educational opportunities for girls. Yet some panelists dismissed efforts to reduce poverty or improve girls’ education – instead claiming the solution to child marriage is sexual liberty.

“So a child is a person who is under 18,” said self-described youth specialist Emmanuel Etim, a former UNFPA consultant. “This person has been [denied] the choice to decide who they want to have sex with – they have a right to sexual pleasure – who they want to get married to, do they want to have children, how many, with whom? It’s all taken away.”

A delegate from Norway prodded the panelists. Many African countries have taken a strong stance against child marriage, but “not as many countries would like to see the link to SRHR,” she said. “Why the resistance?”

In almost all African countries, Etim said, “the constitution is very clear . . . on either an explicit or implicit criminalization of certain rights,” alluding to the African continent’s “outspoken values” against homosexual behavior.

At this point, Zambia’s ambassador “couldn’t resist the urge to weigh in,” making sure “to clarify on the issue of sexual rights.” Zambia supports the Cairo agreement. However, she “would not even be standing here to discuss the issue of sexual rights, because sexual rights in my country is constitutionally illegal.”

Homosexual activity is punishable in Zambia by up to 14 years in prison. Tying the sexual rights agenda to eliminating child marriage could taint efforts in the very places where such measures are most needed.

The rift exposed, IWHC’s president took the microphone. Francois Girard urged the audience to “not be afraid of those words” when dealing with child marriage, acknowledging that “these words are raised, and everyone runs for the exit.”

“We will not be manipulated by those who would use those issues for other purposes,” Girard said.