By Cynthia Soohoo and Katrina Anderson
More than half of all new HIV infections in the U.S. occur before the age of 25, and one in four teenagers has at least one sexually-transmitted infection (STI). One contributor to these startlingly high rates is the U.S. reliance on abstinence-only-until-marriage education.
On May 22, 2008, the United States appeared before a UN committee of human rights experts in Geneva to review its record in upholding children’s and adolescents’ rights. But the U.S. avoided a dialogue on important issues like health and education that go to the heart of the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC).
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international treaty that articulates children’s basic human rights. The U.S. has never ratified the CRC, and has only ratified the treaty’s optional protocols that cover the important, but narrow, issues of child soldiers, prostitution, pornography and trafficking. Somalia is the only other country that isn’t party to the CRC — but it hasn’t had a central government since 1991.
The committee meeting in Geneva oversees countries’ compliance with the CRC. On teen health, the treaty doesn’t dictate precise policies, but it supplies a sensible starting point. For example, it holds that governments should provide adolescents with appropriate, adequate and accurate information to enable them to protect their health and practice healthy sexual behaviors. This includes teaching young people to use contraceptives in order to decrease the risk of STIs and unintended pregnancy.
U.S. programs do not comply with that model. The U.S. spends $200 million a year on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Many abstinence programs exaggerate failure rates of condoms and give false information about their effectiveness in preventing STIs. Abstinence-only programs in the U.S. prohibit teaching about contraceptive use.
The abstinence-only programs don’t work in their abstinence message either. U.S. teens have sex as early and as often as teens in other developed countries. The difference is that U.S. teens are less likely to use contraception than their international peers. And those who complete the programs are less likely to seek STI testing and treatment. These government policies disproportionately affect low income women of color who rely upon public education during an era when the HIV/AIDS infection rate for African-American women is 23 times that of white women.
Despite these alarming outcomes, teen health wasn’t on the table in Geneva and the U.S. side-stepped a discussion on its abstinence-only policy. Now, it’s up to the U.S. Congress to show that it takes teenagers’ human rights seriously. One step is for the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Children. Another is for Congress to eliminate abstinence-only funding and direct the money instead towards comprehensive sex-education.
Cynthia Soohoo is the director of the domestic legal program and Katrina Anderson is a human rights attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York.