Building peace in the minds of men and women

Experts in Southern and Eastern Africa call for renewed commitment on sexuality education and health services

“All young people have the right to live full and healthy lives. We have a duty to prepare adolescents and young people for the reality of the contemporary world through appropriate education and skills, and to fulfil the right to appropriate education and health services.” This is the message from a group of education and health experts who met in Gaborone, Botswana, on July 30-31 to review the findings of a new report to be published by UNESCO and UNAIDS on the health of adolescents and young people in the 21 countries of Southern and Eastern Africa.

The meeting was opened by the First Lady of Tanzania, Mama Selma Kikwete. “I believe, just like other parents in the region, that adolescents should be taught life skills on how to protect themselves and make informed decisions about their bodies and future,” she said. “Whilst talking about sexuality with our young ones is taboo in many communities, I don’t believe that it is in our best interest to leave our children to lose lives because of our silence.” 

Young people make up 33% of the population of Southern and Eastern Africa and they face a number of urgent health issues, not least of which is the prevalence of HIV, still a major concern with 52 young people becoming infected every hour in the region, of which 60% are young women. Early pregnancies also place a further burden of responsibility on young women – in a number of countries in the region, one in five girls has started childbearing by the age of 17 and 10% of all births in the region are to girls aged 15-19, often with serious health consequences. 

“These are preventable issues. We can prevent teenage pregnancy,” said Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA and a member of the High level Group. “I find it just unacceptable that the highest – the main – cause of death of young people [is] maternal deaths. These are pregnancy-related. We have to say no to our young women dying.” 

In an outcome statement, the group highlighted the need for good quality, gender-sensitive sexuality education that prepares adolescents for puberty and relationships and prevents unintended pregnancy and HIV. They also stressed that countries need to provide improved access to youth-friendly health services, which includes contraception, confidential HIV and STI testing, HIV prevention, treatment and care, as well as safe pregnancy and delivery and safe options in the case of unintended pregnancy. Child-marriage and gender-based violence were singled out as current impediments for adolescents and young people realising their right to education and health. 

The participants also called on the region’s health and education ministers to sign a new commitment to work closely together to improve access to high quality sexuality education and health services. This commitment, due to be signed in December 2013 ahead of the International Conference on AIDS in Africa, will demand that countries look at young people’s needs with more openness, and be willing to re-examine social norms about young people’s sexuality. Experts are asking decision-makers to judge whether the current education and services serve the best interests of adolescents and young people or whether the gaps highlighted risk jeopardising their future health and wellbeing. 

A comprehensive report prepared as a foundation for the process will be released in October that “provides a compelling case for why the time is now to commit ourselves to improving sexuality education and access to services for young people,” said Sheila Tlou, Chair of the High Level Group and UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa. “We will work hand in hand with young people, parents and communities at large to ensure that our leaders put their wellbeing at the centre of national agendas and resource allocation.” 

The full statement can be viewed online here


On July 30-31, the High Level Group of education and Sexual Reproductive Health experts from Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) met in Gabarone, Botswana to discuss findings and recommendations from a new report compiled from data from 21 countries in the region on the state of comprehensive sexuality education and sexual reproductive health services. 

The ESA Commitment process was initiated in late-2011, under the leadership of UNAIDS and with the support of Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Regional Economic Communities (EAC and SADC) and UNESCO, with additional partners coming on board later. It is a process which aims to secure a commitment from ministers of health and education from these 21 countries around a common rights-based agenda on the needs and rights of adolescents and young people, focusing on their sexual and reproductive health, education and services. Partners involved in the process are: UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO, SIDA, Norad, IPPF, the Ford Foundation, the Church of Sweden and the International Network of Religious Leaders Affected by HIV (INERELA). 

For more information on the ESA commitment process see the following links: