25 January 2016

Africa: Youth Voices Stand Out As Family Planning Conference Roars to Life

The International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) has kicked off on a high note in Indonesia with strong calls from young people to have more control over their sexual and reproductive health.

The ICFP youth pre-conference (24-25 January) is tackling opportunities and challenges specific to youth and family planning.

More than 250 young people from around the world are meeting together to shed more light on challenges they are facing in dealing with sexual and reproductive health and rights issues and solutions to addressing them, before attending the main conference (25-28 January).

Problems faced by youths

Lack of sexuality and life-skills education were identified as cross-cutting problems faced by youths in all countries around the world.

Participants noted that the lack of comprehensive sex education has negatively affected sexual and reproductive health among young people. This includes unsatisfactory results in reducing teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and maternal mortality among adolescents.

Stigma and stereotyping were also identified as major challenges and Jamila Gacheri from Kenya noted that young people have limited access to youth-friendly health services.

She gave an example where young people are "interrogated" in some hospitals in Kenya when they inquire of reproductive health services. "Many young people do not go to health centers to ask for information on sexual and reproductive health because they will be called immoral," she said.

Key solutions

Nyasha Sithole, founder of My Age Zimbabwe, said: "Comprehensive sexuality education is a pre-requisite for youth empowerment."

"If our countries are to realise demographic dividend, there is need to invest and address the problem of lack of knowledge on sexual and reproductive health."

There were also calls for governments and key stakeholders to review and improve curricula so as to fairly accommodate sexual and reproductive health education.

According to the Journal of Adolescent Health (2015): "Education, particularly secondary education, has repeatedly been found to be associated with a whole range of better sexual and reproductive health outcomes such as contraceptive use, age of marriage, number of births and use of health services."

And this is an issue which affects more than just young people's family planning needs. Adolescents lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, including access to condoms, is one of the major factors which has led to AIDS being the second leading cause of adolescent deaths in the world, and the number one cause in Africa (UNAIDS).

A key solution to addressing this issue is integrating sexual and reproductive health services with HIV services, which can increase the range of services provided to and taken up by communities, saving time and money in resource poor settings. It is also important to ensure there are youth-friendly units included in such services, if governments really want to address the epidemic among adolescents, which is not declining as quickly as among other age groups.

Communicating on health issues

Social media has long been identified as an effective tool to increase young people's awareness of the issues affecting them. But participants at the conference noted that they have an active role to play in facilitating discussions over their sexuality.

Another key solution is the need to ensure young people have the opportunity to effectively engage in policy and strategy formulation, especially when addressing youth-specific challenges. This was discussed in reference to the Millennium Development Goals where youths claim they were poorly misrepresented in the formulation of the goals and subsequent policies.

However young people have pledged to work together with key stakeholders in achieving the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals. The message they want policy makers to hear loud and clear is that to achieve the new global goals over the next 15 years, a tailored and targeted approach is needed that must not leave anyone behind, especially young and marginalised people, in preventing unintended pregnancies, reducing maternal mortality, and ending AIDS.

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