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Unintended Pregnancy can set in motion a lifetime of missed opportunities – UNFPA ED and UN Youth Envoy address 8th ACSHR Opening Ceremony

The 8th African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights (ACSHR) provided an opportunity for dialogue between youth and policymakers, and a channel for interrogating the role international organisations and civil society groups can play in advancing sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and exploring what more needs to be done.

Opening the 8th ACSRH, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Natalia Kanem during her address, noted that the deadline for Agenda 2030 was only 12 years away, and that there must be concerted effort to change persisting policy barriers and practices that restricts access to health services, sexual and reproductive health and rights, education, and decent work. She further noted that the lack of CSE can lead to unintended pregnancies among adolescent girls, which can set in motion a lifetime of missed opportunities and personal development. 

The UNFPA Executive Director affirmed that there was need to accelerate action on issues like family planning, in line with FP2020 Movement in which UNFPA is a partner, as there exists over 200 million women who want access to contraceptives but are unable to do so. There was also a pressing need, she stressed, to accelerate action to end gender-based violence, particularly Female Genital Mutilation and child marriage. “There is nothing we are facing that we cannot overcome. Perseverance is important, and together with you [young people], we would continue to address the institutional, cultural or legal structures that exacerbates the gaps in delivering sexual and reproductive health and rights,” she said. The legacy of the late Babatunde Osotimehin, she added, which was dedicated to the empowerment and support of young people to know about their SRHR, would remain a priority for UNFPA, so that young people can become an integral part of the efforts to better their lives

Dr. Uwem Esiet, Director of Action Health Incorporated (AHI), pointed out that convening the 8th ACSHR was an attempt to stand on the shoulders of Babatunde Osotimehin, whose dogged commitment to SRHR outlined the vision and possibilities of fashioning a world in which societies considered the wellbeing of young girls and women, a thing of utmost importance. 

In many parts of the developing world, challenges continue to exist with respect to institutionalising comprehensive sexual education (CSE). The Minister of Planning for Ghana, who was one of the speakers at opening of the conference, noted that cultural and religious norms are challenge his country has had to deal with, seeing as the rights of young girls and women were often negotiated by households and community relationships, which are mediated by gender biases. In effect, this results in the voices of this demographic group being unheard and marginalised. To this end, he affirmed the need to prepare a standard guide to teach CSE both for school or out of school adolescents and youth, especially those from 10 – 24 years.

The UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake made the point that all forms of discriminatory and harmful practices that target young women and girls were not only inexcusable but had no place in the 21st century. As a group who not only understood the problems they were facing but are also aware of the solutions, she recommended that young people must make it their business to find ways of pushing those solutions to the mainstream. Using the lever of technology and social media, which are firmly in their control, she called on young people to use these mediums to amplify their voices and drive the demand for better legal, institutional, social and cultural conditions to advance their aspirations.