Historically, young people have been viewed as a population group of relative health, which has often seen their reproductive health needs be largely neglected by existing health services.  

Young people in Africa face a wide range of reproductive health challenges, which have sizeable impact on their future reproductive health status.  Their access to reproductive health services - including treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and information about sexual health - is limited, but young people are excellent candidates for sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information, including comprehensive sexuality education.

Current policies on sexual reproductive health, voluntary counselling, and testing are not youth-friendly, and even in instances where they are, there is an ongoing lack of substantive implementation.  Project design and decision-making is often determined by older demographics, resulting in young people being apathetic towards accessing public health services - even those that are established and reserved for their express use.  Consequently, youth remain vulnerable to HIV due to low uptake of reproductive health services, and a lack of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health knowledge.  This results in high-risk sexual behaviors, some of which include limited consistency and incorrect condom use, age mixing, multiple partners, and limited use of voluntary testing and counselling.

For the past years that l have worked in advocacy for the advancement of SRH Information and services for young people, l’ve worked with young people who are frustrated with the lack of substantive and credible information on sexual and reproductive health services, particularly in schools and tertiary institutions. Young people need to feel that they are respected as astute and competent human beings, primarily in terms of their capability to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. My work with this demographic revealed that it is vitally important that the decisions that young people make rest on comprehensive and personal understanding of the complexities of sexual and reproductive health.  In an African context, communities tend to ignore free and frank discussions about sex – in the name of “preserving culture” – even as that very same environment that is saturated with sexual messaging.  Understandably, young people are bombarded with mixed messages: Sex appeal is directly correlated with being “cool”, whilst at the same, time sexual abstinence is associated with health.  In reality, neither such supposition is inherently true.  A parent’s reasoning for abstinence -”Because l said so” – does not work, but rather encourages young people to explore their sexuality beneath the veil of shame.  Young people need to be armed with objective knowledge in a culture that may not always prioritise their welfare and safety.

Slogans such as “Say no!” do little to prepare young people for real life situations and emotions which are intertwined with sex, romance, and interpersonal relationships. These one-dimensional approaches attempt to homogenise an experience that is complex at any and all stages of life.  The present adverse economic environment makes young people - and especially young women - vulnerable to HIV, as they engage in sexual activities in search of financial and material assistance.  Sexual relationships between adolescent girls and older men are common, but because these relationships are based on unequal power relations - where the older man is in control - it is hard for the girl to negotiate safe sex.

Young people need options to navigate their own sexual journeys without harm.  Of the numerous options available, be they abstinence, faithfulness, or use of condoms and other such contraceptive tools, this process must be personalized, appropriate, and allow room for individuals to make choices that are right for them.  The goal is not to impose a particular lifestyle on a young person; the goal is to empower young people to make healthy decisions of their own accord.

 

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