Youth champion education, employment and sexual health for new development goals

Young people call on governments to support their aspirations for a better future.

Young people are calling on governments to make political commitments to support their aspirations for a better and sustainable future following a high-level dialogue in Nairobi, Kenya.

The three-day event (19-21 August) was an opportunity to champion the youth agenda ahead of intergovernmental negotiations that will take place over the coming year. These negotiations will be critical in shaping the post 2015 development agenda and defining the new global sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Issues high on the delegates’ agenda included poverty, education, jobs, and sexual and reproductive health. “Unemployment has been an issue among the youth and we urge our governments to offer sponsored vocational skills to unskilled youth to enable them be self-employed,” said Ronald Kasamba, from Uganda.

Building young people’s advocacy skills

Over 50 youth advocates from more than ten countries across sub-Saharan Africa gathered for a global advocacy workshop ahead of the three-day dialogue. The workshop was organised by the Organization of African Youth, The PACT and UNAIDS to build the capacity of young people to influence national post-2015 positions. In particular this included equipping the participants with strategy skills to put up a strong voice for sexual and reproductive health and rights, including HIV issues.

Religious and cultural beliefs were among the major reasons identified as thwarting inter-generational sexual reproductive health and rights dialogues both in schools and at the family level.

Participants of the workshop said unless these issues are discussed at household levels, adolescents will shy from confronting the topic with their teachers in schools.

Sexual and reproductive health

Nelly Omwando, 23, a project coordinator at World Starts with Me Youth Advocacy Network, noted that while cases of adolescent pregnancies are still rampant in many African countries, sex and sexuality issues remain taboo and are only discussed among peers in whispers. This, she observed only encourages youngsters to indulge in sex out of curiosity.

A world youth data sheet released by The Kenya Population Situation Analysis (2013) revealed 7.3 million births worldwide are by girls between the age of 15 and 19 years. Girls who get into early child-bearing lose their education opportunities and job prospects and this is one of the issues the youth delegates are keen to address.

“Parents should stop being naively inclined to religious doctrines that prohibit them from addressing sexuality with their children. This will reduce premature [unplanned] pregnancies and unwarranted abortions,” said Kiziah Philbert, Commonwealth Youth Council regional representative for Africa and Europe.

The data also showed adolescent child bearing is more common in developing countries where 10 per cent of girls give birth each year compared to less than 2 per cent in developed countries.

The fact that so many youth in developing countries are having unprotected sex means they are also exposing themselves to the risk of HIV. Each day, more than 2,400 young people become infected with HIV and young people account for 40 per cent of all new adult HIV infections.

Educating youths, families and teachers

“My mother and I discuss sexual and reproductive health with no embarrassment and we can watch a movie on the same topic together,” remarked Diana Agunda, a 25 year old delegate.

Productive dialogue on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) with parents and teachers can help prevent unplanned pregnancies and HIV transmission. But although this may be possible for some urban youth, most in rural areas find the topic sacred and too embarrassing to speak about.

While the youth delegates agreed they have a responsibility to work on improving their livelihoods, they called upon governments to incorporate SRHR in school curriculums as a measure to equip youth to be reliable future adults. Teachers also need to be armed with adequate relevant knowledge for them to advise adolescents without prejudice or humiliation to those who are sexually active. “This calls for concerted efforts from the youth, teachers, parents and our governments,” said Diana.

Catherine Nyambura, a sexuality education implementer in schools and colleges, believes support systems in schools are weak saying very few teachers have concrete knowledge of addressing HIV or sexual orientation.

Young adolescents living with HIV have told Catherine how they are not allowed to look after their antiretroviral (ARV) treatment themselves but have to go to the teachers daily for their medication. The teachers then engage the students in embarrassing questions. “This, unfortunately, has made many youths default in their ARV adherence,” she observed.

Young people and sexual minorities

The project coordinator at Dandelion Kenya noted that teachers especially those in mission schools also need civic training to understand sexual orientation. “While sex among teenagers is prohibited in schools and communities, a girl who has sex with females is likely to get a stiffer penalty than one who is heterosexual,” she said. She gave an example of a girl who was expelled from a Nakuru school when her teachers found out she made sexual advances to another girl. “The other girls who had also indulged in sex but with boys got away with only a reprimand,” Catherine said.

The fact that same sex relations are illegal in 38 African countries is a major issue for youth looking for a better and healthier future. With many African governments continuing to squash the rights of sexual minorities, it is hot territory for influencing key decision makers when it comes to negotiating on the post 2015 development agenda. And there is a massive opportunity for youth to play a change-making role.

Kelly Thompson, an AIDS activist and a member of The PACT, urged the participants to speak and lobby in one voice in order for their views to be heard. “ I believe this workshop has opened our eyes to see our potential as youth to strategize our advocacy messages come the post 2015 development agenda,” she said.

Read more about HIV and the post 2015 development agenda