By: Idrissa A. Conteh, Women Deliver 100 Young Leader from Sierra Leone
This blog is part of a series, edited by Women Deliver, in partnership with Impatient Optimists, on youth perspectives to celebrate World Contraception Day. Share your thoughts in comments and join the conversation at #WCD2012. For more stories and to get involved further visit No Controversy.
In Sierra Leone, general knowledge about sexual and reproductive health is terribly low. Limited understanding about sexual health among youth is a major obstacle that restricts young people’s access to contraception and other critical reproductive health services. Unfortunately, inadequate sexual health education and knowledge is not the only barrier limiting young people’s use of sexual and reproductive health care – we face many other challenges too:
Inadequate Health Service
Several aspects of Sierra Leone’s health system make it challenging for youth to access health facilities and services. Health centers are often far from home or difficult to get to, and some forms of contraception are unaffordable and poorly stocked. Taken together, these factors and others make basic family planning services both unavailable and inaccessible to the majority of young people in Sierra Leone.
Lack of Youth-Centric Services
By and large, sexual and reproductive health services are not tailored to youth in Sierra Leone. Many health centers do not separate youth and adults while they receive reproductive and sexual health care. Young people feel that this invades their privacy and breaches confidentiality, which can create an intimidating environment and deter them from seeking care.
Young people also find that clinicians are not youth-friendly. Service providers can be judgmental toward youth seeking contraception or family planning services, and many lack the proper training to effectively treat and communicate with youth.
Myths, Misconceptions & Stigma
Finally, there are many myths and misconceptions about family planning services and contraception in Sierra Leone. Many people falsely believe that some forms of contraception can cause infertility. In addition to these myths, stigma and public perception also play a key role in discouraging young patients from accessing services. In Sierra Leone, many believe that contraceptive-use promotes promiscuity and directly challenges religious and traditional beliefs and is, therefore, immoral.
The Way Forward for Youth Sexual Health in Sierra Leone
While these challenges are daunting, we can – and we must – address them and ensure that young people are able to access the services they want and need. This will require a concerted effort by parents, school authorities, traditional and religious leaders, service providers and peers.
In particular, it will be critical to ensure that youth have access to comprehensive sexual education that is age-appropriate, gender sensitive and accurate – even before they reach reproductive age. And, of course, sexual education starts at home. Parents and guardians should feel responsible for educating their children about sex and sexuality at an appropriate age. If parents talk about sexual health with their children, they can begin to build a relationship with them that can allow for open discussions and, ultimately, safe, informed decisions about sex.
Schools can also play a vital role in providing sexuality information to students by integrating sex education into the school curriculum. This can help empower youth with critical knowledge about sexual health, the importance of contraception and their right to access family planning services. Ultimately, this can help reduce the number of unintended teenage pregnancies, thereby increasing girls’ retention in school and also preparing them for better and brighter future.
Young people should be aware that with every right comes personal responsibility. While youth have the right to be sexually active, they should also recognize the responsibility they have to practice safe and responsible sex.
I firmly believe that if young people want and need sexual and reproductive health services, contraception and education, then they should all have the right to them.
Idrissa A. Conteh is a family planning youth advocate and leader from Sierra Leone. Conteh is the youth focal person for several family planning organizations. He works with the Planned Parenthood Association of Sierra Leone and is the Family Planning Coordinator for UNFPA’s Repositioning of Family Planning Project. He is a member of the Global Youth Coalition on AIDS (GYCA) e-group and has recently been awarded a scholarship to participate in a youth-preconference and at Women Deliver 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 28-30, 2013.