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UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth gives Keynote address at the youth pre-conference for the 8th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights

The UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, in a keynote speech at the youth pre-conference on Sexual Health and Rights (SHR), called on youth sexual and reproductive rights advocates to build alliances beyond SRHR circles with organizations and networks that focus on education, employment, civic partnership, as well as peace and security. All of these issues, she noted, were interrelated, and a holistic approach was needed to tackle them.

The youth pre-conference was jointly organized by the African Commission and the Youth Lab, an organization that mainstreams youth issues through, dialogue, research, capacity-building and training to ensure that young people’s needs are not only voiced but also understood.

Justine Coulson, UNFPA’s Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office Deputy Director, who spoke earlier at the conference, noted that the world was in a better place than it was 20 years ago with respect to sexual and adolescent health, but there was need to understand how much more still needs to be done.

“Agenda 2063, SDG [Sustainable Development Goals] 2030, sustainable and economic development in Africa cannot be achieved without investment in health, education, employment,” he said. As a lead agency for young people and youth development, she emphasized UNFPA’s commitment to the development of platforms like youth-centred civil society and advocacy groups.

In his remarks, South Africa’s Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, said that the government had a vision to address the problems of poverty, and unemployment: two issues that are closely tied to SHR. The theme of the conference, he added, resonates perfectly with South Africa’s vision as a nation and its commitment to the empowerment of women.

“Nelson Mandela rallied us to end all forms of discrimination, and today, which marks 28 years since he walked out of prison, we are reminded by his words that freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of discrimination,” he stressed. 

With 60% of African population under 24 years, the need to ensure that all African governments are ready to invest in young people has never been more important. In her address at the conference, the Youth Envoy reiterated the fact that access to quality and free education would improve the livelihood of citizens through innovation, and development of adaptable skills. In effect, this would build a more prosperous society, decreasing gender discrimination and the gender equality gap. More so, she pointed out, such a society would most likely be absent of conflict and strife, which in most times create the enabling environment for sexual and gender-based violence that disproportionately affect young women and girls.

In addition, the envoy recalled some memories of her time as a young girl growing up in Sri Lanka where comprehensive sexual education (or sexual education of any sort) was regarded as a cultural taboo, leaving many young girls ignorant and vulnerable about their bodies. While applauding some of the progress that has been reported in the Sustainable Development Goals 2017, she noted however, that low-income countries made very little progress in terms of SHR. Meaningful youth participation was therefore critical, especially in how they leverage on the partnerships of international bodies, on relevant data collection, programme implementation and capacity-building to deliver the expected outcomes from youth agendas.