Nearly half the world’s population is under the age of 25. The largest-ever generation of young people, these three billion people are our future and our present. Each has a role to play in driving economic and social development, and shaping history – if they can access the tools they need to take charge of their futures.
Yet around the world, young people are often unable to make critical choices that impact their futures. We hear it straight from the young people, particularly young women, who we work with every day. These young people 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 South Africa, while 60 percent of women aged 15-49 use modern contraceptives – a figure far higher than the regional average – about 45,000 school-aged girls became pregnant in 2009.
For far too long, the issues of reproductive health and family planning for adolescents have been taboo. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the issues have been almost completely ignored. Consequently, pregnancy and childbirth-related complications remain one of the continent’s leading killers of young women. For those young women who survive pregnancy, many will drop out of school due to early pregnancies. These women will not learn the skills they need to gain paid employment and contribute 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 prioritizse and scale up youth sexual and reproductive health programs. This includes comprehensive sexuality education that teaches young people about their rights and their options. We also need to ensure young women have access to a range of contraceptive methods.
The South African government’s efforts to improve access to contraception and strengthen family planning services, including for young men and women, have been exemplary and can serve as a strong model for other countries to follow.
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 criticism. To lower cultural and social barriers to care, we must engage community leaders – including political and religious leaders in South Africa – 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 South Africa 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.
Finally, we must involve boys and men in the process. 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. We’ve seen great success through programmes like the Learning Centers Initiative in Zambia and Uganda, run by the South-Africa based Sonke Gender Justice Network. These centers encourage boys and men to be equal partners in their relationships, access sexual and reproductive health services and promote their peers’ adoption of these behaviors.
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.
Jill Sheffield is the founder and president of global advocacy organisation Women Deliver. Remmy Shawa is the International Sida Project Coordinator for the Sonke Gender Justice Network, a non-profit that focuses on gender equality, gender-based violence prevention, and HIV and AIDS