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Empowering youth for sexual and reproductive rights

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Today, nearly half the world’s population is under the age of 25. These three billion people – the largest-ever generation of young people – are our future and our present.

Each has an indispensable role to play in achieving international development goals, driving economic and social development, and shaping the course of history.

Yet around the world, young people are all-too-often unable to make critical choices that impact their futures.

We hear it straight from the young people, particularly adolescent girls and young women, we work with every day – they are unable to access the information and services they need to protect their sexual and reproductive health and plan their lives.

In the world’s poorest countries, contraception use is low, and one in three women has a child before the age of 18. In sub-Saharan Africa, 53 million women want, but do not have access to modern contraception – and the unmet need is greatest among women under the age of 20.

For far too long, the issues of reproductive health and family planning for adolescents have been taboo, and in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the issues have been almost completely ignored.

Consequently, pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications remain the leading killer of teenage girls in developing countries. And countless more girls who drop out of school due to early pregnancies do not learn the skills they need to gain paid employment and contribute productively to their families, communities and nations.

These facts cannot be ignored, and what we urgently need now is more support from every sector of society.

First, we need developing country governments and donors to prioritise and scale up youth sexual and reproductive health programmes.

This includes comprehensive sexuality education that teaches young people about their rights and their options, as well as programmes to ensure that girls and young women have access to a range of contraceptive methods. We also need government to pass supportive policies that impact reproductive health like increasing the legal age of marriage in countries where child marriage is still prevalent.

At the July 2012 London Summit on Family Planning, the Nigerian government pledged to reach a contraceptive prevalence rate of 36% by 2018, which will not only enhance maternal and child survival, but will also contribute to Nigeria’s goal to save one million lives by 2015.

These efforts show the Nigerian government’s commitment to improving access to the family planning services that Nigerian girls and women want – and deserve.

Second, we need to reduce the stigma associated with youth sexuality. Even when girls and young women are informed about family planning and services are available, many do not access the services due to fear of reproach or criticism.

To lower cultural and social barriers to care, we must engage community leaders – including political and religious leaders in Nigeria– as champions for youth sexual and reproductive health and rights. We also need to train health care workers to provide services to young people confidentially and without judgment.

Third, we need to encourage and empower young people to be their own advocates and agents for change. Young people in Nigeria and everywhere have the right to the knowledge, tools and services they need to make informed decisions about their bodies and live full, healthy and productive lives. In many communities around the world, young women and men are working tirelessly – both individually and collectively – to demand access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

For too long, these young leaders have been on the sidelines of the global dialogue about health and development.

We must bring them into the conversation. Recently, Women Deliver brought 100 Young Leaders to its third global conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the goal of building youth capacity to advocate for issues around maternal and reproductive health.

At the conference, these 100 Young Leaders spoke passionately about the challenges youth face, and shared their strategies to fight for change. Giving youth a voice at international forums like these is an important first step forward.

And, finally, we must involve boys and men in the process. That’s why the 100 Young Leaders programme includes almost 40 young men. And, that’s why we are excited about the amazing work that’s being done to increase male involvement in sexual and reproductive health and rights.

For example, we’ve seen great success through programmes like the Learning Centers Initiative in Zambia and Uganda, run by the Sonke Gender Justice Network and supported by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, RSFU.

These centres encourage boys and men to be equal partners in their relationships, access sexual and reproductive health services themselves and promote their peers’ adoption of these behaviours.

By enacting supportive policies, bringing new voices into the conversation, and implementing effective, age- and culturally-appropriate family planning programmes, we can make a real and lasting impact on the lives of young people everywhere and help ignite a virtuous cycle of development.

As we celebrate World Contraception Day(September 26),  let’s all take up the charge – across generations – to make sure that young people have the information, services, and support they need to become agents of change for girls and women around the world.

Jill Sheffield is the Founder & President of global advocacy organisation, Women Deliver. Remmy Shawa is the International Sida Project Coordinator for the Sonke Gender Justice Network, South Africa.

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