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HEALTH & RIGHTS: Youth advocates pave way for girls, women

By Katja Iversen & Blessing Timidi Digha

For too many girls in Nigeria, sex education is a father, sister or friend saying: “Don’t let any boy touch you,” and “If a man touches you, you will get pregnant.”

As a result, these girls and women often get pregnant because they don’t have access to accurate information about contraceptives and reproductive healthcare.

Blessing-Tigha-and-Katja Iversen
Blessing-Tigha-and-Katja Iversen

In the end, some may decide to have an abortion – like I (Blessing) did.

Confused, scared and without many options, many turn to back-alley clinics for illegal and unsafe abortions performed in dirty environments and with unsterile equipment.

While sub-Saharan Africa has made significant progress to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights, there still remains much to be done.

As of 2012, in sub-Saharan Africa, 42 percent of women wanted to avoid pregnancy, but only 17 percent were using modern contraception according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Girls and women deserve more – they deserve better. Now is the time to invest in their health, rights and wellbeing, and turn the tide on their futures.

We know that one of the best ways to reduce unsafe abortions is to provide girls and women with access to comprehensive sex education and contraceptives. Yet, globally, more than 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using modern contraceptives.

Global gaps
If we filled these global gaps in sexual and reproductive health services, education and rights – and provided women with the full range of pregnancy care they are entitled to – we could reduce unintended pregnancy by 70 percent and unsafe abortions by 74 percent according to UNFPA and Guttmacher Institute.

We also know that when girls and women can choose when and whether to have children, they are more likely to reach their full potential – and so are their families, communities and economies.

For these reasons we owe it to our mothers, sisters and daughters, as well as our families and communities, to do more and do better – and young people are leading the charge.

Each day, young advocates are moving the needle on legislation in favor of girls and women by challenging cultural norms and misconceptions. At the Girl Child Development and Support Initiative (GCDSI), Nigerian youth advocates are starting difficult conversations about sexuality, abortions and access to contraceptives – and educating and empowering each other to take charge of their own sexual health. Most importantly, this program provides a space for youth advocates to take these conversations to the next level by finding new ways to hold policymakers accountable for their promises to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Talking about sexual and reproductive health is perhaps the most important step in addressing these issues. While sexual health and rights awareness has increased overall in sub-Saharan Africa, it is still relatively low among adolescents. In many sub-Saharan African countries, comprehensive sexuality education is still not part of the formal school curriculum and there is often reluctance among adults to openly discuss sexuality with young people, thereby leaving youth at risk of negative outcomes.

That’s why, GCDSI is launching a new campaign that will run both online and offline, #SRHRStereotypes, to give young people an even larger platform to speak openly about sexual health and take action, both locally and globally.

This campaign will be important because it has the potential to dispel common sexual health and family planning myths that have been passed on from generation to generation – many of which cause more harm than good. The campaign provides a unique opportunity to clarify misconceptions and debunk stigma associated with sexual and reproductive health and rights.

#SRHRStereotypes will fill the sex education gap for young people by delivering accurate, life-saving and easy to understand information on sensitive topics, such as unsafe abortion, through social media, radio and television broadcasts.

We must approach health and development through a gender lens. We must look for solutions from every region. These solutions and many more will be explored at the Women Deliver 2016 Conference taking place in Copenhagen in May. Global and local leaders, such as Mrs. Graça Machel,

Former Nigerian Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, will stand alongside 5,000 world influencers and advocates—from the highest-levels of government to grassroots change-makers – to discuss how to deliver on promises to girls and women.

Crucially, a good 20 percent of attendees will be young people – and for good reason: young people aren’t just our tomorrow. They are the leaders of today, and must be given opportunities to drive change in their communities.

With the endorsement of the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals – a set of UN goals adopted by 193 countries that aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030 – we can and must ensure that the global push to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change starts with every girl and woman, no matter where she lives, no matter her age. As they say, it is time to translate the “talk into walk” and turn speech lines into budget lines.

This International Women’s Day, let’s recognise the powerful solutions every young person and every generation has to offer. Let’s work smarter for girls and women everywhere.

Katja Iversen is CEO, Women Deliver; Blessing Timidi Digha, is Women Deliver Young Leader & Community Mobilisation/ Advocacy Officer at Girl Child Development and Support Initiative.


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