Empowering Young Women:the Keystone to a Successful Reproductive Health Agenda

By Chido Onumah

There was an important sideshow during the just concluded ground-breaking summit on family planning in London. Perhaps to underscore the important role young people play in the global family planning programme, while world leaders met at the main hall of the Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Centre, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, Melinda Gates, and Andrew Mitchell, UK International Development Secretary, met upstairs in a small room with three young family planning activists.

Each person had a story to tell, not just about the strides they had made but the challenges they faced on this very touchy issue. The challenges ranged from lack of access to contraceptive supplies and services even for those willing to use them, distances to health facilities, and sometimes cultural and religious barriers.

It is estimated that more than two hundred million women and girls in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant lack access to contraceptive information, supplies, and services.  The effect: a woman dies every two minutes as a result of pregnancy related complications, adding up to nearly 800 women dying every day.

So it was appropriate that the summit, put together by the UK Government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and development partners, focused on “making available affordable lifesaving contraceptive services, information, and supplies to an additional 120 million women and girls around the world’s poorest countries by 2020”.

(Picture:From left, Andrew Mitchell, Jack Raynes of Restless Development, Syefa, David Cameron, Kokou, Melinda Gates, and Aselefe)

Melinda Gates put the focus of the summit in perspective when she noted that it was about giving voice and putting power in the hands of rural women.  She urged summiteers to show courage and stand up for rural women on family planning.

“We’re here for a very simple reason: women should be able to decide freely, and for themselves, whether, when and how many children they have”, David Cameron said in his keynote address. “It’s absolutely fundamental to any hope of tackling poverty in our world.

But before his speech, Cameron met with Aselefe and her friends. Aselefe Belete Endale, 17, a Save the Children youth delegate and peer educator from Ethiopia is the captain of her village football team. She uses football matches to address family planning issues and HIV prevention.  “When I approach my age mates during football matches, they are happy to listen to me because I tell them my experience,” she tells the Prime Minister and his team.  “I am the 9th child of the family. I didn’t have access to education because my parents had to cater for so many children. I became interested in family planning and reproductive health issues to share my experience and help families in my country so that girls like her do not have to suffer”.

Another youth delegate, Kokou Sename, an International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) volunteer from Togo, talks about taking family planning services to remote areas with the most need. Kokou says he would like to see more commitment to young people’s access to reproductive health services, not only from a public health perspectives, but as a matter of human rights pertaining to young people.

According to Kokou, “family planning is a real issue, unfortunately people are shy to address it. The right information needs to reach people at the right time”. He says one of the major challenges is the culture that sees contraception as a means of reducing population and the idea that family planning is meant only for people who are married.

Kokou has reasons to worry. Almost a quarter of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa drop out of school because of unintended pregnancies. As the PM noted later in his speech, “without access to family planning, pregnancy will often come far too early. In Sierra Leone, for example, a UNICEF survey found that a staggering two fifths of girls give birth for the first time between the ages of 12 and 14. These young girls are not ready physically, emotionally or financially to become mothers. They don’t want to give up school or the chance to go on and run a business and build a better life for themselves. And yet suddenly their dreams are broken as they become trapped in a potentially life-threatening pregnancy”.

For Syefa Ahmed, an English teacher  from Bangladesh, it is important to motivate young people to talk about their sexuality. She notes that most young people think sexuality talk is about sex. “It is about the way we carry ourselves, the way we dress, the way we take care of our body and how we contribute to our society,” she adds. For her, family planning policies should also target young people who are less eager to talk about family planning because they risk being condemned by their peers.

Messan Azanlekor, Communications Officer, PLAN Togo, shares Syefa’s view. “For young people, sexual health is not just an issue of being informed about reproductive health and sexually transmitted infections, he says. “It is also about them being in charge of their own lives and being able to contribute to the overall decisions and standards that prevail in their families and communities.”

After listening to Aselefe, Kokou, and Syefa, David Cameron heads back to the main hall to deliver his keynote address. He concludes his speech by mentioning his meeting with Aselefe and her friends and imploring world leaders and donors to act. “Just before I came onto this stage today, I met Aselefe, Cameron notes. “Aselefe is an inspiring young woman from Ethiopia. She told me she is the captain of her village football team. She uses football matches to distribute materials, contraceptives and HIV prevention methods. She wants every woman and girl to have access to family planning and wants improved health systems in Ethiopia so girls her age no longer have to suffer. She has hope in her eyes. She has ambition in her voice. She gives you that sense that she believes things really can change. Today we are investing in that hope for Aselefe and for girls like her all over the world. Their future will determine our future. And we will help them fight for it. Today and every day until that battle is won.”

By every indication, the London Summit on Family Planning was a huge success. With $2billion from partners and $2.6billion from donors, the hard work starts now, in the words of Andrew Mitchell. “This is an extraordinary breakthrough for millions of the world’s girls and women. Thanks to the pledges made today 120 million more women will be able to choose whether, when and how many children to have.”

Whether football, edutainment or social media, all youth initiatives focusing on family planning aim at the same thing: empower young girls, give them a voice and the opportunity to determine their future. Let’s hope Aselefe, Kokou, Syefa and other young people like them around the world on the front lines of the battle for contraceptive security for girls and women will get all the support they need.

*Onumah is coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy: http://www.africmil.org/