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March 6, 2015

News |

Youth advocates tell Congress: Helms hurts

Youth advocates from Ghana, Pakistan and the United States spoke at a
briefing at the U.S. House of Representatives this week to call on the
U.S. government to support programs and policies that expand young
people’s access to comprehensive reproductive health care and
information, including safe abortion and contraception. Specifically,
panelists called on the U.S. government to lift two abortion-related
restrictions in U.S. foreign policy — the Helms Amendment and the Global Gag Rule — and to fully fund international family planning and reproductive health programs.

In her introduction, Ipas Director of Community Access Leila Hessini noted that young people are particularly vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. “More than half of young married and unmarried women ages 15-19 who are sexually active and want to avoid pregnancy have an unmet need for modern contraception, the highest level of unmet need among any age group.”

Selorme Azumah, Ipas program advisor and panelist from Ghana,
described how this reality played out for young people in Ghana, where
young people already face significant barriers to reproductive health
care, including contraception and safe abortion care. Although
abortion is broadly legal in Ghana, he said, the Helms amendment
discourages policymakers from taking essential steps to ensure access to
comprehensive reproductive health services. “The role of U.S. foreign
policy in Africa is huge and can be very damaging when it is pregnant
with restrictions.”

Urooj Arshad of Pakistan, with Advocates for Youth,
described how the Helms Amendment undermined efforts by youth advocates
and family planning organizations to ensure that young women have
access to comprehensive reproductive health services and information.
“Young women are most vulnerable to negative outcomes from confusion
around an overly broad interpretation of the Helms amendment as well as
the (currently rescinded) global gag rule,” she said. “Permanent repeal
of the Helms Amendment and Global Gag Rule are critical to fostering
rather than suppressing an enabling environment for young women’s sexual
and reproductive health and rights around the world.”

The briefing was sponsored by a number of leading advocates for
reproductive rights in the U.S. Congress, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jan
Schakowsky (D-IL), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Elizabeth Esty
(D-CT). Reps. Esty and Schultz both made remarks at the briefing.

Esty commended the advocates on the panel for speaking out, recalling
how seeing high school classmates drop out because they got pregnant
drove her to volunteer for Planned Parenthood in college: “Women
everywhere in the world must have the opportunity to determine their
futures, care for their families and manage their fertility.” She
continued, “As a member of Congress, this is a core issue for me, to
protect the safety and health of women around the world.”

Allison Pfotzer, a youth advocate at Georgetown University in
Washington, D.C., noted that young people around the world are routinely
prevented from receiving accurate health information and care: “From
the young women I worked with in Kenya, to the young teenage girls I
worked with in the mountains of North Carolina, who did not understand
that they have a choice and power of consent in a relationship, to the
college students I have met who still feel stigma around being sexually
active, and often don’t take the necessary precautions to be safe and
responsible for themselves out of fear of judgment from their peers or
others… these are all young women suffering because we have restricted
rights and live in a culture of shame and stigma around women’s
sexuality. We aren’t getting what we need.”

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Pfotzer noted. “This is a human rights issue.”

For more information, contact [email protected]