"My daughter told me she knew what condoms were. Yet, I had never spoken to her about them," disclosed Dr. Gaston Zulu, one of the panelists at the ICPD side event that was hosted by the African Center for Social Transformation (ACHEST) on November 13, 2019 in Nairobi.
Another panelist, Dr. Elizabeth Gitau from Kenya Medical Association also disclosed:
"My child keeps asking me, 'mummy what is HIV?' Yet she's only six years old. If I don't tell her, the next time she could be playing with a 14-year-old and he gives her wrong information."
These two personal stories shared by both Dr. Zulu and Dr. Gitau speak volumes on just how much children have an idea about sexuality health. Yet, many adults continue to burry heads in the sand, rather than face the reality and talk about sex education.
While delivering the key note address on gender equity gaps and health services for the youth, Dr. Anne Beatrice Kihara, the President at African Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology decried the high rate of teenage pregnancies that are putting adolescents at the risk of contracting HIV.
Dr. Kihara said 21 million girls aged 15 -19 in developing countries become pregnant every year. About half of these pregnancies (49%) are unintended. “Pregnancy is just a sign of another bigger problem: HIV. We also still have a problem of abortions, as girls resort to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Young women aged 15- 24 are twice more likely to be living with HIV than men," said Dr. Kihara.
Dr. Richard Mugahi, from Uganda's Ministry of Health said there is need to define safe spaces for adolescents to open up and seek help about issues affecting them. This, he emphasized, will curb on teenage pregnancies. “If gender-based violence is inflicted by our relatives in homes, where are the safe spaces in a patriarch society? A young girl from school walking through the boda-boda stage is not safe. If you say let them stay in school, we know that some teachers are defiling our girls!"
Dr. Mugahi added: "All women who are productive are as a result of a safe place. A safe place has to take into context the background and individual needs of the girl. It can't be universal. Adolescents, parents and guardians are key in defining this space."
Dr. David Okello, the Director of Non-Communicable Diseases and Healthy Ageing at ACHEST urged young people to speak up. “When HIV started, civil society were not talking until the people affected themselves started talking. How much are these girls involved? The children should get involved!"
Dr. Kihara agreed but was quick to note that it was not always easy for a girl who has conceived to speak out. "I would like to agree. However, how will they talk? You get pregnant and leave school to take care of the baby." Some participants argued that huge finances of were needed to achieve reproductive health and family planning needs.
However, Dr. Patrick Kadama, the Director of Policy and Strategy at ACHEST elaborated that countries can attain universal health coverage without necessarily being rich.
"The biggest issue is how we utilise resources at hand. It is now being rethought that SDGs have to do with economic growth," observed Dr. Kadama.
Citing the example of countries like Cuba and Costa Rica, Dr. Kadama added: "Look at the UHC, gender and power relations, youth and the Human Development Index. You will not see any red areas. Our biggest challenge will be how we lobby for resources. We should be making sure that we get down into the households and change things on how we work by improving behaviour."
Uganda's Sexual Reproductive Health Rights Bill is gathering dust on the shelves in Parliament due to stiff resistance from cultural and religious leaders who worry that sex education will corrupt young minds.
However, Dr. Kadama stressed that a huge population must have its health services planned.
"There is no Bishop who wants to see their 12-year daughter pregnant. But I've not found a religious leader who supports the bill." He added:" We must learn to speak the correct language."
Dr Kadama further observed that gender equity gap is a social constraint that starts at household level, and goes on to the labour market.
The meeting was held under the theme: “Accelerating actions to closing the gap on gender equity and health services delivery for the youth: Relevance if the CSO engagements in driving the ICPD agenda."
At the end of the meeting, ACHEST committed to advocate for policies and programs of action that raise awareness and mindset change to mitigate or reverse the widespread crisis of teenage pregnancies in African communities. It also pledged to mobilise stakeholders to create and sustain networks communities of practice in Africa for youth responsive policies and programs.
Compiled by Carol Natukunda