Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are ‘human rights that entitle every person to make decisions concerning their sexual activity and reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence. More specifically they ensure that individuals are able to choose whether, when and with whom to engage in sexual activity; to choose whether and when to have children; and to access the information and means to do so’. Unfortunately this is not the reality in many African societies today as there is a lack of both SRHR education and services. This is especially the case when it comes to the youth.
Governments, schools, society and parents have often ignored and purposely overlooked young people’s needs for sexual and reproductive education and services. Although their intentions may be good, this can end up becoming a dangerous situation for young people who then lack knowledge needed to make good and informed decisions about their own sexuality. As the statistics show, the median age of first sexual experience for young women in most countries in Southern-Sahara Africa is between 16 and 18 years, whilst for young men the age is between 17 and 20. By knowing this, it becomes clear that there is a need to make sure that young people learn how to keep healthy and safe when it comes to their sexual activities (United Nations Population Fund, 2012).
In situations where young people and their sexual and reproductive health are neglected and ignored, their well-being becomes constrained and social justice is not achieved. Such circumstances can have a lot of negative effects on the individual and society at large including unplanned and early pregnancies which: pose a danger to young women’s lives and health, as well as that of their babies; increase HIV infection rates that can lead to death and serious health issues; increase the spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) that can lead to infertility and other health problems; see a loss of schooling and working-years; and see women have an inability to demand legal rights. It is therefore important, in order to achieve for the social justice we all strive for, that we all invest in a good SRHR systems for youth (UN, 2014).
In order to do this we need to develop youth-friendly health services which are accessible and affordable for young people. In 2012, six different YMCAs in Africa conducted a survey on youth´s health issues. The need for affordable and accessible health clinics were pointed out as an important issue for young people in Madagascar, Senegal, Liberia, Togo, Zambia and Zimbabwe: All countries reported that health services in general, and especially youth-friendly health services, were expensive which made them inaccessible for many youth. As young people generally have access to fewer financial means than adults, changes need to be made in order to ensure that young people are not being discriminated against in the healthcare system because of their financial realities.
Further, there is a need to improve attitudes of healthcare professionals and others providing SRHR services to the youth. Discrimination on the basis of age results in young people being uncomfortable or unwilling to seek help for their sexual and reproductive health issues. Changing the attitudes of services providers will ensure that the youth are getting the help and knowledge they need to protect themselves and acquire the same opportunities and rights as adults to stay healthy and continue being productive forces in their communities.
UN, 2014: FRAMEWORK OF ACTIONS: For the follow-up to the Programme of Action, The International Conference of Population and Development Beyond 2014
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2012: Status Report: Adolescents and Young People in Sub-Saharan Africa: Opportunities and Challenges, UNFPA and PRB
By Jeanette Joreid, AAYMCA