Young People Today Time to Act Now: An Opinion Editorial By Prof. Sheila Tlou UNAIDS Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa

Prof. Sheila Tlou, UNAIDS Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa/Photo: UNESCO/UNAIDS

On 6-7 December 2013, education and health ministers from 21 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa will gather in Cape Town, South Africa, to agree on a political commitment based on UN and civil society supported recommendations on the need for sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services in the region. These recommendations have the potential to bring about critical improvements in the education, wellbeing and life chances of millions of young people as well as the development of the region as a whole.

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Yet, during this meeting, the futures and lives of millions of young people will hang in the balance as ministers decide whether or not to take the recommendations on board and commit to bold actions which are needed now. This is why I am raising awareness of the issues at stake, the decisions ministers will take and the impact of their decisions on the millions of young lives today, and millions more in the future.

The ministerial meeting on 6-7 December will be a defining moment for the HIV epidemic, for young women and a turning point in the history of how we empower adolescents and young people to exercise their rights to education, health and citizenship. As young people, parents, teachers, leaders and decision-makers – together – we must do everything we can to ensure our education and health ministers are aware of these issues and the solutions proposed and make sure they commit to take urgent action for adolescents and young people today.

With all the evidence pointing to the benefits that comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services can provide in a rapidly changing society, why is it so vital that the region’s health and education ministers make this commitment in December?

A new report on the region – Young People Today. Time To Act Now – provides many of the answers. In terms of HIV there has been very encouraging news recently – 6,3 million people are on treatment and far larger numbers of people are living longer and healthier lives. Also, the rates of new infections are declining in some countries in the region. Despite this, we are still seeing 430,000 new HIV infections per year occur among people aged 15-24. That translates to 50 new infections every hour, with the majority occurring among young women. It is notable that thirty years into this epidemic, less than 60% of young people in the region still don’t know basic facts on preventing HIV infection.

Central to the recommendations is the need to provide – at scale – a combination of CSE from primary school onwards and SRH services, thereby creating an integrated approach with adolescents and young people at the centre. These actions will see ministries working together to increase the support to adolescents and young people so they can lead healthier, more informed and responsible lives. The report’s recommendations are do-able and cost-effective – and will save young lives.

We cannot afford to be complacent and let this situation continue. Currently, 2.6m young people are living with HIV – education and health have the mandate, the resources and the responsibility to make an AIDS free future a reality for the next generation. Yet this will only happen if we enable teachers and health providers to reach out to young people with appropriate education, information and access to services and commodities.

As well as HIV, many other sexual and reproductive health issues are challenging young people. These include high levels of early and unintended pregnancies and high levels of maternal deaths. As the global community looks back on how far we have come since the International Conference on Population Development (ICPD) in Cairo 20 years ago, and as we gear up for a post 2015 agenda, we need to change the narrative in our region. The ICASA meeting of education and health leaders offers a huge opportunity.  We need to ask ourselves if we have delivered on what was promised by way of providing young people with the best start in adult life and giving them everything they need to make informed decisions to negotiate the realities of the 21st century.

Ministries, civil society organisations – including youth organisations – and a wide range of stakeholders in education and health are already involved in meetings at country level on what needs to go into this ministerial commitment. The partners in this initiative are ready to support us in implementing the changes. I am totally committed to making sure our adolescents and young people have what it takes to lead healthier and more informed lives, where they make decisions about their own futures. If you are a parent, a teacher, a community leader and most of all a young person anywhere in the region, find a way to make your voice heard. With less than a month until the 6-7 December ministerial meeting and the ICASA conference in Cape Town, I urge you to talk with your ministers of health or education and talk to UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNFPA and UNICEF country offices. We must make sure that young people’s futures are recognized, valued and protected. It’s time to act now.

Prof Sheila Tlou, Regional Director UNAIDS and Chairperson, High Level Group on the ESA Commitment

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