UNESCO Advocates for Sexual and Reproductive Health with Africa’s First Ladies
She was forced into marriage at 10 years old for USD 360, experienced physical and moral violence on a daily basis, before escaping with the help of a family member. At 14, the young Chadian girl stood at UN Headquarters to tell her story and thank her country’s President for passing a decree banning child marriage at an event initiated by the Organization of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS, in the margins of the 71st General Assembly on 20 September.
Participating in the event that focused on improving the sexual and reproductive health of adolescent girls, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova praised the First Ladies for being powerful voices in favour of a better future for girls across the continent and commended the increasing number of African countries that are banning child marriage.
Recalling the ambitious pledges made by UN Member States in the Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS in June this year, she asked how these could be achieved “in a world where only 34 percent of young people can demonstrate accurate knowledge about HIV prevention and transmission.”
“Comprehensive sexuality education is a foundation for all HIV prevention and part of every young person’s journey to adulthood,” she continued. “It reduces sexually transmitted infections, HIV and unintended pregnancy, improves self-esteem, changing attitudes and both gender and social norms.”
She underscored the “need to support and train teachers, to engage parents and communities to ensure young people gain knowledge and skills to make conscious, healthy and respectful choices about relationships and sexuality.”
The Director-General outlined UNESCO’s work on comprehensive sexuality education, including guidance, technical support and institutional capacity building.
Dr Dana Lordina Dramani Mahama, First Lady of the Republic of Ghana, chair of the African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS, stressed the urgent need to focus on adolescent girls – the most vulnerable age group - in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
“We need strategic partnerships from community global level, to scale up interventions,” she said, recalling that HIV AIDS is the leading cause of death among girls and women of reproductive age. “We are committed to and put emphasis on the sexual and reproductive health needs of our adolescent girls,” referring to community outreach campaigns and empowerment and skills building programmes.
The First Lady of Sierra Leone, Ms Sia N Koroma noted that a multisectoral approach is the most effective way to overcome barriers that youth face in accessing information about health. “Sexual and reproductive health services must be made attractive and accessible to young people, youth friendly and provided in a non-judgemental and confidential environment. We also need to advocate for laws and policies that counter harmful practices such as child marriage.”
The importance of a comprehensive approach was also highlighted by the First Lady of Rwanda, Ms Jeannette Kagame, who shared the success of campaigns and communications forums in her country that facilitate access to sexual and reproductive health services, combined with leadership skills and campaigns against early marriage. Holistic interventions were also described by the First Ladies of Benin and Burkina Faso.
UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé pleaded for an “integrated approach to have maximum return”, while UNFPA’s Deputy Director Dr Natalia Kanem stated that “we cannot make sustainable progress without meeting the needs of adolescent girls who suffer from systemic discrimination and who are denied access to education, health care and information on sexual and reproductive rights.”
The Organization of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS was established in 2003 and has served as a strong voice for Africa’s most vulnerable women and children through advocacy, sensitization and mobilization of key stakeholders at all levels. It has led campaigns to reduce maternal mortality, end child marriage and end adolescent AIDS.
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