An Unfinished Agenda: Sexual and Reproductive Rights in the 21st Century

World leaders will descend on United Nations Headquarters in New York on 22 September to commemorate twenty years since the adoption of a landmark agreement known as the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The ICPD transformed the world's thinking about sustainable development, shifting the concern from population growth and numbers to placing human rights at the centre of policy-making -- in particular the fundamental rights and freedoms of women and girls to have control over their sexual and reproductive lives.

After an extensive process of reviewing decades of country experience and progress in implementing the ICPD commitments, a bold vision has emerged for a sexual and reproductive rights agenda suited to 21st Century realities. It is the product of analysis from governments around the world, the findings of experts and researchers, contributions from the UN system and civil society, and the priorities set forth in regional agreements - encapsulated in a visionary report of the UN Secretary-General that serves as a Framework of Actions to guide country efforts for years to come.

That visionary action agenda is rooted in social justice and equality for all, and provides proven, practical, and cost-effective recommendations for solving some of the world's most pervasive problems. It aims to end the deaths of 800 women and girls that happen every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; to provide access to contraception to the over 200 million women who would like to prevent pregnancy but lack effective means to do so; to expand access to safe, legal abortion to stop the tens of thousands of deaths and countless more injuries that result every year from unsafe procedures.

As well, it aims to end the HIV pandemic and halt the 2,400 new cases of HIV that occur every day among youth alone; to ensure that young people have the information, education, and services they need to make informed choices about their sexuality and avoid all forms of violence and abuse, and stop the staggering rates of teen pregnancy that are a leading cause of death for girls in developing countries; to address one of the most widespread human rights violations - gender-based violence, experienced by at least 1 in 3 women worldwide; and to stop the discrimination, hate crimes, and criminalization of individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

All of these global challenges can be effectively addressed through strengthened political will and leadership on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The price of inaction weighs heavily on individuals, their families, societies, and economies. It drains people of their health, productivity, and full potential; it overwhelms health systems and saps public budgets, and robs countries of their human capital - all resources that are needed to address pressing development challenges, including poverty eradication, economic growth, climate change adaptation, and food security.

Sexual and reproductive rights are often lightning rods in intergovernmental debates and national politics, dubbed controversial and sidelined as distractions. But sexual and reproductive rights, simply put, are the basic rights of all individuals to have control over decisions that affect the most private aspects of their lives - decisions about one's body, sexuality, relationships, marriage, and having children - rights that many reading this piece hopefully take very much for granted. These rights are cornerstones of any person's ability to lead a satisfying, healthy, and fulfilling life--especially so for women and girls, including so they can pursue an education, secure decent work and better wages, and participate fully and equally in social, economic, and political life.

As former Heads of State, we understand the challenges of tackling certain issues. But we also understand that a test of true political leadership is the forging of pathways for people's real freedoms, opportunities and choices--which requires the vision and courage to do what we know is right. We must turn the forward-looking ICPD agenda into reality. And now as the international community defines the next global framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals, decision-makers must also seize this historic moment to ensure that all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, are at the heart of it.

The Task Force is an independent body of 26 distinguished leaders from all regions of the world, with records of service in government and parliament, civil society, academia, and philanthropy. The Task Force has a mandate to provide a bold, authoritative voice for gender equality and the human rights of women and young people, and sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, through the ICPD Beyond 2014 and Post-2015 Development Agendas.