Teens in the Tinderbox

Here's a paragraph that might lose you for a second:

Next week, I head to the United Nations to attend the 45th session of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD). The Commission's work is to "monitor, review and assess the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action at the national, regional and international levels."

Sigh. There's something about the UN and its technical vocabulary, its homegrown acronyms, its hushed hallways and country name plates. The complex of buildings on the East River in New York City seem to inspire sky-blue hope in many, cynicism in most.

And yet, many of that cynical category, who caution against wasting time inside those hallowed halls, are the very ones who will lament a setback on sexual and reproductive health and rights -- rendered in those very same hallways -- for lack of attention and vigilance on our part.

The UN: an alternate universe at best, comic geopolitical theater at worst.

But the 2012 CPD outcome document will serve as a foundation for major upcoming international negotiations on sustainable development and population, so we've deemed it a strategic investment of time and energy. We'll travel the 95-North corridor later this week and monitor the proceedings on behalf of the world's young people in particular, because this year's theme is "Adolescents and youth."

Sounds simple, but it's a tinderbox.

The number of adolescents and young people in the world today is at an all-time high. Along with food, water and safe shelter, this huge share of the world's population needs access to contraception and a range of sexual and reproductive health services.

There will be many at the CPD who to choose to deny that young people are sexually active. These same deniers are so out of touch with the reality of young people that they don't consider their human rights. It's as if they don't have rights, or those rights aren't under threat. They equate access to comprehensive sexuality education with a rise in sexual activity, when sex ed actually delays sexual initiation.

These deniers also conflate the basic tenets of good health care -- such as privacy, confidentiality, and informed consent -- with undermining cultural, religious and familial values. The opposite is true. Young people are sophisticated enough to explore and define their values, and make informed decisions that help safeguard their well-being.

As we head into a week of tense negotiations, let's huddle to make sure our offensive game is primed and ready:

  1. We will be prepared to respond to emotionally-charged untruths about young people and their vulnerabilities with emotionally-charged facts, and strong evidence.
  2. We will maximize a unique and isolated circumstance (UN conference rooms) for the benefit of young people around the world, whose lives literally depend on the success of our efforts.
  3. We will hold the line and reaffirm past commitments, but we will also seek to advance a visionary agenda for the full realization of young people's sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Over dinner last week my 4-year-old daughter spontaneously prayed for children who don't have enough food in their bellies at night. It was a showing of worldliness that made me both proud and sentimental. Separated from my family next week, I'll log long, late hours in honor of my girls.

I'll also work in honor of young women in places like the Central African Republic, where I served in the Peace Corps. For young women who can't rely on something as simple as a steady supply of sanitary pads, which hampers their educational and social goals.

And I'll work in honor of the street kids of Lusaka, who always capture my attention and my heart when in Zambia. Those kids, exposed to the harshest both nature and society has to offer, are the face of our work this next week. Among the most marginalized and vulnerable, they must be the standard-bearers for the vision and courage we bring to the negotiating table.

To those who say we waste too much time at the UN, I say, stay tuned. You only get out of it what you put into it, and we intend to put in our best.