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Opinion

Sex, drugs and Latin America

More intimate matters than violence are critical to region

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Much of the media coverage of the Summit of the Americas focused on the drug cartels and violence that affect several countries throughout the region. Just last week, the Washington Post ran a gritty photo series on violence in Honduras, where the murder rate is roughly 20 times that of the United States.

While violence presents a serious threat to human security, there is an equally pressing issue at hand that is rarely discussed: the health and well-being of Latin America's youth.

Worldwide, today’s generation of youth is the largest ever. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are more than 160 million people between the ages of 10 and 24. The young are affected by drug-related violence, but they also face domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, unintended pregnancies and a lack of quality health care and education. Just this week, news outlets reported that in Guatemala, there are 135 new pregnancies each day among girls aged from 10 to 19. They face scarce employment opportunities and the pervasive threat of instability in a region that has endured a tumultuous political history.

One of the driving forces of these challenges is the stark inequality that persists throughout the region. While Latin America has gone through a period of impressive economic growth in recent years, and the disparities between rich and poor have diminished in some countries, not all have benefited: according to a 2009 U.N. report 18 of the 25 highest gaps in rich-poor ratios were in Latin American countries.

Who bears the brunt of these disparities?

Indigenous populations, rural communities, young people and other marginalized groups who suffer disproportionately from poverty and poor health outcomes. In Mexico, for example, where the maternal mortality rate has fallen in recent years, the aggregate statistics paint a very simplified picture of the reality on the ground. For example, when you look closer at women and girls in Mexico’s poorer southern states — many of them indigenous — they are dying during pregnancy and childbirth at nearly twice the rate of the national average.

A key solution to bridging these inequalities is universal access to comprehensive sexuality education. This not only provides young people with accurate information about their bodies, their rights and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies; it teaches young people how to build respectful relationships and make their own decisions. Effective sex education programs develop young people’s skills in asserting themselves, listening, negotiating and resisting pressure from others.

Perhaps most important is that this brand of education gives young people the chance to know themselves and gain confidence in their inherent value as individuals. Beyond being critical to building healthy and safe sexual relationships, these are basic life skills all individuals need to make their own decisions and ensure their personal safety and integrity.

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While the necessity of programs such as these may seem obvious, they are rarely taught in schools across Latin America, much less for the millions of adolescents who are out of school. Robust investments in programs and services that help young people examine values regarding gender and sexuality will ultimately empower today’s generation of youth to create new cultural norms based on equality and respect.

This is the long-term change we need to seek, not only for the health of individuals, but also for the security of our nations. Sustainable, secure and just communities will only be realized once we invest in these critical areas.

Dr. Carmen Barroso, a native of Brazil, is Western Hemisphere director for the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The organization combines quality health services with advocacy in defense of sexual and reproductive rights.


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A doctor examines a pregnant Mayan woman at her home in Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, Guatemala.

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