Eighteen year old Mariana Carvalho considers the global sexual health of women and girls to be of the utmost concern.
The Brown student lists many taboos that still hinder women’s abilities to make decisions about their sex lives, whether it be birth control options or sexual education.
“Regardless of socioeconomic background, race, or nationality, women across the world still do not, in many cases, have the opportunity to decide what they truly wish to do with their sexual lives and are often too shadowed by taboos to ask for help,” says the young Portuguese feminist. “From deciding upon which contraceptive method to use, to deciding upon whether or not to use contraception, women are often placed in situations where they are not able to make this choice. The reasons for this can involve a lack of self-confidence where they feel like a burden in imposing such requests, a fear of the consequences involved in speaking up as a result of emotional or financial dependency, or simply because in their societies, women and girls are not considered valuable in this decision-making process.”
Mariana tells me that even the most outspoken women are sometimes not capable of setting sexual boundaries with their partners, which in the case of of some sexual encounters, can change the course of their entire lives. Although many sexually transmitted infections are treatable, HIV/AIDS and unplanned pregnancy continue to impact the lives of women in an age where safe sex is possible — but not always accessible.
Shame or embarrassment, Mariana says, is also quite powerful when it comes to keeping girls and women from getting treated for STIs. Taboos often win out, discouraging girls from asking questions or getting accurate information about protection.
“Taboo and conservative environments, on behalf of the girls themselves or their loved ones, can lead to yet another feeling of loss of power and self-esteem, which can lead a girl to feel as if her value is lost,” she observes.
Mariana says that women around the world are entitled to accurate information about sex and sexual health, an effort that is far from a reality in many health facilities. Selected as one of 21 delegates for the G(irls 20) Summit, Mariana’s insight into the challenges that face girls’ sexual health was deemed a necessary component of the global conversation regarding the status of women and girls. Selected to represent the European Union, Mariana and her fellow delegates attended discussions of child marriage, driving limitations, and the under-representation of women in certain fields of study.
“What infuriates me the most is the need for a section of the population to consider itself feminist, or for the need for a group of people to be considered fighting for women’s rights in the first place,” she says when reflecting on the Summit. “Deeply-rooted taboos, ingrained preconceptions, and generation-lasting traditions limit the overall shift in views of women as equally capable to men in every sense of the word.”
She refers to herself and the other delegates as “catalysts of change,” selected to raise women’s confidence in themselves in a global way. By being deemed credible voices on certain issues, Mariana hopes that “we will be able to create a ripple effect to inspire other girls and women to do the same.”
Heading back to Lisbon last weekend at the conclusion of the Summit, Mariana comments that she’s learned very practical information such as how to start up a business and how to use technology to develop global change. The teenager has also received guidance from working mothers and powerful women in science, law, and economics.
She intends to use this highly effective network in her personal mission to instate more sexual awareness, and comments that by merely being visible in the sexual health arena, she can have a positive impact.
“Girls are slowly finding this inner strength to ask for assistance, evaluate their options, and ultimately have the last word when it comes to their own beautiful bodies,” she says.