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Sexuality, HIV and young people’s lives – let’s get serious about it

Posted by on 03/12/2013
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary, World YWCA
The international development community is abuzz at the moment with a lot of interesting talk and ideas about where we are headed with the post 2015 agenda, where we stand in relation to the MDGs and how far we have progressed towards the ICPD goals.  Against this backdrop, sexuality, HIV and young people’s lives are on my mind.
I am a firm believer that the time has come for a change in the narrative of Africa that we hear and see, and which is presented to us time and time again. I see windows of opportunity and possibilities for change all around us.  ‘Africa rising’ is the favourite expression of people in the business world at the moment. The population experts are telling us about another wave of change – a youth bulge and the promise of a demographic dividend – which could put some African countries on the same growth path as China and India.
Who are we talking about? In East and Southern Africa, it’s about the future of 158 million adolescents and young people aged 10-24, that’s 1/3 of the region’s population.
To capitalise on this wave of opportunity, we need to find a way of addressing some of the education and health challenges in our path. The hard facts are that an estimated 50 new HIV infections occur every hour amongst young people aged 15-24 and the majority of new infections are amongst young women.
What’s going to change this picture, and change it now? Part of the answer lies in the knowledge and skills which adolescents and young people need to prepare themselves for adulthood, being a parent, being a global citizen, the world of work and life in the 21st century. Here is the challenge: less than 40% of young people in the region have adequate HIV prevention knowledge.  We need a rethink about what’s happening in our homes, schools and communities when it comes to preparing young people for adulthood.  This means we need to talk about sexuality, about the realities of young people’s lives, their education and sexual and reproductive health needs – and the barriers they face.  Young people have made their demands very clear, most recently at an Africa wide ICPD+20 review meeting in Addis Ababa – comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.
What do we need to see happening in schools and classrooms? For starters we need to scale up good quality CSE available as widely as possible, starting at primary school.  Good quality means it must cover sexuality, gender equality, relationships and sexual and reproductive rights, as well as being accurate, age-appropriate, delivered by well trained teachers, culturally sensitive and supported in and out of schools.  In the past few years, the scientific evidence of what works and what doesn’t work in sexuality education has grown dramatically.  So let’s get some of the myths out the way: sexuality education does not lead to early sexual activity – in fact it helps to delay the initiation of sexual activity; it increases condom use and contraception, reduces the number of sexual partners and it reduces sexual risk-taking.  When sexuality education includes a strong focus on rights and gender, greater benefits are possible. Gender inequality, and prevailing gender norms, increase the vulnerability of girls and women to unintended pregnancy, HIV and other STIs, and limit their access to critical health services.
We need to trust and support teachers and schools in this task and we need to support this education process at home and in the community – and that’s a plea especially to leaders in our faith-based communities.  However, education by itself is not enough – we need sexuality education backed by accessible, affordable and effective health services and commodities for young people.  Take note – that also includes an estimated 2, 6 million young people living with HIV, who have sexual and reproductive health needs like any other young person and who also want lasting relationships, families and a healthy future.  Change is on the horizon – a number of countries in the region have already recognised the need for the shift in policy, how resources are prioritised and how teaching and learning on HIV and sexuality education takes place, now we need that movement to grow.
Across the region, discussions have been taking place for the past few months between government leaders, civil society and stakeholders about the need for a new approach to this challenge.  In early December, these leaders, particularly ministers of health and education, will gather on the eve of the regional AIDS conference ICASA 2013 in Cape Town to take the first steps towards this goal for the region – a political commitment on sexuality education and sexual and reproductive services for adolescents and young people.  As someone entrusted with the leadership of an organisation of young women, with a strong basis in faith, I see this as a major opportunity for change in the region and a way of ensuring a better future for generations of girls and young women still to come. Education and health leaders need to act boldly and work together on a common agenda for adolescents and young people.  It’s time to act now!
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is General Secretary of World YWCA, a human rights lawyer and a member of the High-Level Group on the Eastern and Southern Africa Ministerial Commitment process.
For more information on the Ministerial Commitment process,