LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Eight African countries will get support to improve access to reproductive health education and services for millions of adolescent girls, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said on Friday.
Over the next three years, the agency will work with the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Tanzania to develop programmes for marginalised girls and young women aged 15–19 to ensure they have access to age-appropriate sexual education that will prepare them for adult life.
These countries have some of the fastest growing populations in the world.
“What we are trying to do is to create an army of young women who would have access to comprehensive sexual education, who would be able to have access to services, who also would be able to make choices in their lives and who would have access to education ... so they can develop their full potential,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from South Africa.
About 16 million adolescent girls give birth each year, most of them living in low- and middle-income countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are as many as 120 births per 1,000 girls in the 15-19 age group.
Pregnancy, childbirth-related complications and unsafe abortions are leading causes of death for adolescent girls in developing countries.
Women and girls who have access to family planning and who avoid unwanted pregnancies stay in school longer, accumulate more skills and eventually earn higher wages. Every year a girl is in education delays marriage by one year and this means delaying first pregnancies, lowering the risk of contracting HIV and reducing childbearing-related deaths.
While reproductive health is crucial to women’s overall health, it also affects the entire population since women are important contributors to the world’s economy. About 40 percent of the global labour force and over 60 percent of agricultural workers in sub-Saharan Africa are women.
“We believe, and firmly so, that if you’re able to develop girls and their education, [give them] access to reproductive health, education and services, and they are able to make choices in their lives without any coercion, then what you are likely to have is that, in addition to the general education at school, they would be able to reach their full potential," said Osotimehin.
"They would become economically viable, they would also then be able to take decisions about who they want to marry, when to marry, how many children to have or not to have, what space to have between one child and the next,” he added.
“We know once you empower girls in that sense, they’ll actually have children that they also care about and they [those children] would also be able to go to school. So you’re actually lifting them out of poverty and creating a new generation of people who then would create those priorities for their communities and their countries,” he said.
The U.N. agency is hoping that once effective, the programmes will be extended to other countries that would benefit from them.