Durban — Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) play a major role in the lives of young people, enabling them to decide freely and responsibly on all aspects of their sexuality.
Last week, the AIDS Foundation of South Africa hosted its annual Regional Learning and Sharing Conference in Durban, under the theme "Policing Sexualities: Sex, Society & State". Delegates from across the continent shared experiences and knowledge on the complexities of making sexual and reproductive health rights real in Africa and beyond.
The watershed 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Platform of Action called on governments to address the needs and rights of young people related to SRHR. A number of covenants and policy frameworks, like the 2006 Maputo Plan of Action have been signed and ratified concerning reproductive health and the rights of young people in Africa.
In 2008 The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development called on member states to develop, adopt and implement legislative frameworks, policies, programmes and services to enhance gender sensitive, appropriate and affordable SRHR services.
According to the SADC Gender Protocol Barometer 2015, included within the several definitions of SRHR is the elimination of unsafe abortions, unwanted pregnancies, eliminating sexual violence as well as coerced sterilisation and inadequate access to family planning services.
Access to SRHR information and services do not seek to grant a license to young people to engage in early sexual activity. Instead, it is an effort to build the capacity of young people and to avail them of necessary tools to make responsible sexual decisions, to protect their health and that of their future children.
Adolescents and young people in Sub-Saharan Africa constitute 19.6% of the population.
Addressing young people's SRHR in Africa is vital, given the devastating impact of HIV and AIDS, persistent child marriages, high rates of unintended pregnancies, and the risk that those pregnancies may lead to such as unsafe abortions, given restrictive laws and the inaccessibility of safe services. The SADC Gender Protocol Barometer 2015 highlights that in SADC abortion is illegal in at least 11 countries. Where it is legal, there are many conditions and procedures hindering realising rights and choices around abortion.
Despite these, SRHR remains a non-priority issue on the development agenda of many sub-Saharan Africa countries due to limited political leadership and commitment to the realisation of SRHR, and inadequate resource allocation. The language of rights in SRHR is still controversial in African countries. This undermines SRHR policies and programmes.
According to Advocates for Youth, each year there is an estimated 2.2 million unintended pregnancies among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 54% of unintended adolescent pregnancies in sub-Saharan Africa occur among married women.
A key element of the AIDS Foundation of South Africa's work is gathering scientifically sound evidence both to inform the interventions and to ensure that the experiences and needs of targeted communities reach policy makers and opinion formers.
Also critical is enabling organisations working in remote and impoverished areas to collaborate with each other and share the lessons - both good and the shortcomings - of their work.
Many of the challenges to realising SRHR are common to communities and countries throughout SADC. While the contexts vary in terms of legal status for Lesbians Gay Bisexual Trans sexual Intersex (LGBTI) people, the prevalence of child marriage, or access to antiretroviral treatment - the barriers to making choices and services freely available and accessible to everyone are often similar. These relate to among other things, poverty, inequality, patriarchy, to epidemics, to lack of political will, cultural, religious or institutional discrimination.
There is a need for governments to develop programmes that provide access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services that include contraception, safe abortion and post-abortion care counselling and treatment for all young people.
It would be unforgiveable for a parent, a community, a nation or the whole global development community to make a 13-year investment on the education of a girl, only to hold back the services and information that would prevent her from having an unplanned pregnancy, and dying from the complications of unsafe abortion, pregnancy and childbirth.
Let us organise an effective response in eradicating the barriers and boundaries, to make sexual and reproductive health rights real in Africa.
(Oliver Meth is a Social Advocacy Journalist This article is written in his personal capacity as part of the Gender Links New Service).