01/13/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

Another New Year -- And One More Chance to Choose the World We Want

The coming year is a crucial one for humanity, the future and the planet. Throughout 2014, in a series of global and regional deliberations, representatives from all member states of the United Nations will begin negotiating the basis for a new development framework to be adopted in 2015 that will affect the lives of billions of people from all countries, rich or poor, developed and developing, from north and south, for decades to come.

The framework under discussion, known as the Post-2015 Development Agenda, will build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which comprise specific goals and targets and served to motivate the international community's mobilization for its followup. The new Development Agenda will need to have as its essential objective eradicating poverty and promoting social, economic and environmental sustainability.

The Millennium Development Goals, whose 15-year horizon ends in 2015, have been successful in reducing poverty, improving access to clean water and sanitation, galvanizing health advances, and expanding primary education in the developing world. But we still have a long way to go. The Post-2015 Development Agenda offers us the opportunity to build on what went well, learn from what didn't, and reduce gaps among countries and within our societies, so that they are aligned with today's realities.

These realities include the fact that more than 200 million women who wish to avoid or delay pregnancy lack the means to do so. Every day some 2,000 young people contract HIV and 37,000 girls are given away in marriages before they turn 18 years old. Forced marriages are just one aspect of an epidemic of discrimination and violence that continues to undermine the lives and aspirations of women and girls. The toll, in terms of death and disability, lost opportunities and human suffering, is incalculable.

These realities rob individuals of the fundamental human right to make consequential decisions about one's own sexual and reproductive life, including if, when and whom to marry, as well as whether or not to have children. I joined the United Nations High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Development (ICPD) to help make sure that sexual and reproductive rights for all are specifically addressed in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and that the rights of women and young people receive the priority they deserve.

The Task Force promotes these issues not only as matters of human rights but as important aspects for achieving development, given that they contribute greatly to health and well-being and help reduce glaring social, economic and gender-based inequalities. These inequalities are directly related to the dimensions of sustainability that the United Nations will be working toward and that the Task Force has analyzed in detail. And they are among the most cost-effective investments possible.

Discussions of sexuality and reproduction are often swept under the table, because these are uncomfortable and contentious topics to raise. However, the price of ignoring them is too high. When these issues are ignored, the rights of women, young people and especially poor and excluded sectors of society -- the very people who we should be empowering, the very people we are counting on to help generate a more sustainable world -- are trampled.

I have spent much of my life studying human sexuality and observing the many ways it affects the lives of individuals, families and communities. I am convinced that human rights will not be fully realized unless sexual and reproductive rights, which are so basic and intrinsic to human life, are protected. I have also witnessed how positive change can take hold, proof of which is the landmark progress in policies and laws in some countries on the rights of sexual minorities.

When sexual and reproductive rights are supported, everyone benefits. More people are able to realize their potential and fully participate in public, social and economic life. This, in turn, stimulates an evolution in the way people think. They begin to regard others in terms of their individual worth, not through a lens of race, gender, disability, migrant status, sexual orientation and gender identity, or any other factor. That uplifts us all.

These are some of my wishes for the new year. I wish us to promote a global development agenda that enhances the freedoms and full capacities of women and young people by protecting all their human rights, especially those related to their dignity and their sexual and reproductive lives. I want this not only because it is the right thing to do but because I believe that these changes can contribute to the social and economic transformations that are required in order to have the world we want -- a more just, equitable and united world, a world of freedom and equality for all.

Mariela Castro Espín is a member of the Cuban parliament, the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (El Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual, or CENESEX), and a member of the United Nations High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). She is the daughter of current Cuban president Raúl Castro and the niece of former president Fidel Castro.