By: Mallah Tabot, Women Deliver Young Leader
I’m demanding young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in the post-2015 agenda because we can’t wait afford to wait any longer. In 2014, it is a shame that young people have limited or no control over their sexual health. It is a shame that SRHR services are still managed as a luxury item for the 99%, while basic education on sexual health and rights don’t have a place in our educational system. And, why should the decision to have or not have a child be left in the hands of fate or chance or luck instead of choice?
Working in a small rural community in southwest Cameroon, I have seen the stark realities of the lack of education and access to SRHR by young people. My interaction with the small village of Eshobi has exposed me to horrific realities of girls and women’s health - the conditions under which thousands of young girls are forced to live in - because SRHR and comprehensive sexuality education in our educational system is not a priority for our politicians.
One morning at the local health center, I met 8-month pregnant Nadine. She says she’s 16, but the assistant nurse is quick to object. She is actually 14, but feels the need to lie about her age. Parents in the village shun her. Her mother is considered too lenient and unable to deal with adolescents. The school principal had her dismissed, as she is such a bad example. How can a young girl engage in sexual activity? I ask her about her reaction when she discovered she was pregnant. “I didn’t want a baby. I don’t want a baby,” she said. “But what can I do?”
I only met Nadine on this day, but five other girls in her class got pregnant this academic year alone. Though there has been frank community discussions about contributing factors, all possible solutions suggested by the community fall short of long-term sustainable impact. At one such community gathering, a mother suggested that all girls be sent to single-sex boarding schools. The nurse proposes that health workers sneak into the classrooms and inject every girl of child-bearing age with a shot of injectable contraception. The nurse says she is fed up with the growing number of pregnant adolescents flooding the health center each day. A father suggests that the boy in question be dismissed from school alongside the girl, and one member of the local council thinks it is a question of non-disciplined parents. He thinks these kids need be monitored daily and corporal punishment should be intensified when they become promiscuous.
There is no talk about sexuality education, or whether the young girls have a right to demand access to sexual and reproductive health services. The affected young people themselves are not present and even health workers are hesitant to talk to parents about youth-friendly SRHR facilities that are available at the health center due to fear of being accused of encouraging promiscuous behavior among their children.
Here, the local level provides as accurate representation of the status quo at the policy level. Our governments and policy makers have not made commitments or followed up on existing ones to prioritize SRHR for young people. Moreover, there is no plan to mainstream SRHR into already existing socio-economic policies. The ability to separate procreation from pleasure is simply non-existent. One us is forced to just have sex and then hope, by some miracle, that they don’t fall pregnant. It is outrageous that any girl or woman has to go through this.
The right to sexual and reproductive health and rights for young people means we can enjoy a mutually satisfying and safe relationship, void of violence or negative repercussions. To make this a reality, policy makers must establish a framework within which sexual and reproductive wellbeing can be achieved.
Nadine’s case brings me to one conclusion. As young people, the post-2015 development agenda is our best shot at demanding that our sexual and reproductive health and rights be made an integral part of the framework. We need to begin by involving adolescents in decision-making about their own bodies, because they are the ones who eventually grow up knowing or not knowing that they have actual rights over their bodies and that demanding and exercising this power is a basic human right.
We must all join the call to invest in the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people, especially adolescents and young women. We must give today’s youth their rights and create safe places for young people to exercise them.