Southern Africa: Fulfilling Our Promise to Girls in East and Southern Africa Will Give Voice to and Secure Their Equal Future

Joint reflections by United Nations Senior Officials in Africa*

Thirteen-year-old Lydia Mwela from Zambia has observed too many girls in her community becoming pregnant, suffering gender-based violence and testing positive for HIV. She does not wish to end up in a similar situation herself. Through knowledge she is gaining at school, she has become empowered to make her own informed choices and create the future she dreams of for herself. She is learning about healthy relationships, good values, the human rights she is entitled to, and sexual and reproductive health.

Lydia is benefitting from her school's Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme, which has been assimilated into the curriculum as part of the 2013 East and Southern Africa (ESA) Ministerial Commitment to affirm CSE and sexual and reproductive health and rights for young people. This commitment was reaffirmed in 2016 by the Ministries of Health and Education from 20 countries in the region.

The ESA Commitment has been an essential regional framework to ensure the two key Ministries coordinate their commitment to adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights more efficiently while including other line Ministries, such as social affairs, gender and youth, as well as young people and civil society organizations, to deliver CSE in and out of schools.

Together, our agencies have supported governments and civil society to implement by building the capacity of teachers and out-of-school facilitators. We have supported the skills development of more than 30,000 teachers who, in turn, have provided quality, age-appropriate sexuality education to more than three million adolescents, or approximately 11 per cent of the adolescent population. While this is good progress, much more needs to be done to meet our promises to our youth.

As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child this month with the theme My Voice, Our Equal Future, we must chart a collective path towards empowering girls to make informed decisions on their health and well-being. We must also consider the tremendous effects of COVID-19 on young people's lives, health and well-being. The pandemic's short, medium and long-term impacts could mean a reversal of significant gains made to guarantee the basic rights for young people if adequate measures are not taken.

Despite progress, nearly one in three HIV infections in the region is among adolescents and young women, while the teenage pregnancy rate is twice the global average. Yet seven in ten girls aged 15 to 19 years in sub-Saharan Africa do not have adequate knowledge about how to prevent sexually transmitted infections. And harmful practices are still rife - one in three girls is married before her 18th birthday and one in four has undergone female genital mutilation or experienced other forms of gender-based violence.

Girls in our region need to be equipped with life-saving information, skills and services, without discrimination and subjugation. Boys and young men need to be taught the values of respect and equality, understand consent, and recognise their integral role in ending sexual violence against girls and women. We believe that comprehensive sexuality education is essential for reinforcing positive values about bodies, puberty, sexuality and family life; it helps young people develop and sustain essential life skills and health-seeking behaviour; and equips girls and boys to establish healthy relationships.

Though many myths and misinformation abound, evidence indicates that comprehensive sexuality education increases knowledge about HIV and other sexual and reproductive health issues. It also delays the age of sexual debut, reduces risk-taking behaviour, decreases the number of sexual partners and frequency of sex, and increases the use of contraception, including condoms.

CSE plays a critical role in clarifying often contradictory sources of information accessible to young people, and it aims to complement the roles of parents as the primary educators and value shapers of their children. By playing a key role in addressing factors related to school dropout and early sexual debut, we see comprehensive sexuality education directly contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals on education, health and gender.

The ESA Commitment's current term is ending this year, and there is an unfinished agenda to empower all girls. Additionally, physical distancing measures and school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have left young people across the region without access to essential sexual and reproductive health information, services and rights, including comprehensive sexuality education. Continued access to information needs to be ensured in all phases of the pandemic.

Parents, teachers, communities, religious and cultural leaders, young people, civil society organizations, experts and governments must come together to accelerate progress towards universal access to age-appropriate and good quality comprehensive sexuality education for our adolescents and young people.

We support and applaud national governments that have implemented comprehensive sexuality education, based on the needs and realities of their own people and their cultures, and appropriate for different age groups and in accordance with the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention for the Elimination against Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). We call on governments of East and Southern African countries, regional institutions, parliamentarians, civil society, academia, and other partners to renew the ESA Commitment until 2030.

"The sky is vast enough for all birds to fly without collisions." True to this African proverb, when a girl looks at the vastness of the African skies, she dreams of a life of freedom, choices, and opportunities. As leaders in the region, we have committed to make the dreams of thirteen-year-old Lydia Mwela from Zambia and millions of girls on our continent a reality. We stand by our promises and we will continue to walk alongside African girls on their journey to a life where they are empowered to make positive choices about their sexual and reproductive health.

(*) All signatories listed below are Regional Directors (RD):

RD a.i., UNAIDS East and Southern Africa, Aeneas Chapinga Chuma

RD, UNESCO Southern Africa, Hubert Gijzen

RD, UNESCO East Africa, Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta

RD, UNFPA East and Southern Africa, Julitta Onabanjo

RD, UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa, Mohamed Fall

RD a.i., UN Women, Eastern and Southern, Roberta Clarke

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