Ghana like most African countries has a youthful population, with young people aged 10-24 years. 29.3% while about 57% of our population is under 25 years. This demography ordinarily presents a great dividend potential.
However, growing up in a small village called Chiana in the Upper East Region- one of Ghana’s poorest regions where this demographic meant nothing than farm hands and mere numbers, I observed with great worry, that the dividend might just elude us after all. I had this worry because as early as primary school, I sat in class with girls below 15 years, went on vacation and never returned to school with them because they got pregnant and had to be married off to people more than double their age or they just had to drop out of school and have their bright futures and creative potentials turned into the agonies that will define them. In a rather opposite twist, boys responsible for a pregnancy still continue with school while the girls are home-ridden forunjust reasons.
While this continued and increased as I progressed to Junior High through Senior High School, I could not help myself appreciate how unfair and unequal the system has been designed toperpetuate these injustices against girls while their ‘counterparts in crime’- the boys, continue to stay without blame to pursue their dreams after truncating those of the girls! Increasingly as I appreciated the demography and its potential, I constantly asked; with this kind of unequal progressing, how do we ever reap the dividends at least inpart if not in whole?
I took an interest in understanding this further and how I could be part of the solution and not a perpetuator or mere lamenter and my studies in rural development in the university quickly struck a link with my passion- that women empowerment especially through sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and family planning is most critical to attaining sustainable development. I had begun advocating for access to comprehensive sexuality education and SRHR when the opportunity came for youth advocates to join the maiden Marie StopesInternational Ghana (MSIG) Youth Advisory Board. Igrabbed it as a bigger platform for my advocacy to address gender inequalities through fostering an environment that guarantees the SRHR of girls and young people.
As the Chair of the Board, we embark on several advocacy mobilizations as well as discussions on family planning and youth SRHR. We organize workshops in schools, embark on road shows and use social media to advocate for SRHR and family planning. We as well engage policy makers and stakeholders to advocate for a favourable policy environment to advance the SRHR and freedoms of women to own their bodies and reserve the right to make independent choices over them. At the early stages of my advocacy, the greatest fulfilment came in 2017 when I chaired the national launch of the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) manual for young people in Ghana. This manual was developed over four years by a coalition of reproductive health interests organizations and the launch converged a critical community of policy makers and stakeholders, and the opportunity to chair this beyond the honorof giving a voice to young people was fulfilling to me because it came as a great breakthrough in the long years of advocacy to integrate Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) into the regular school curricular for young people and make same available to out of school youth and those living with disabilities. I felt proud that my efforts were recognised and in return, I got what could best be described then asa remarkable level of my service to young people and to see a long held conviction of advocating for youth SRHR and addressing gender inequalities take such a significant leap towards realisation.
Statistics on family planning and SRHR among young people reinforces the urgency to answer instead of ask; if we ever can reap the dividends on our unique demographics. While only 9% of girls had their sex debut by age 15, a whopping 47% had sex by age 18 and by 18.4years, about 50% of them have had sex. According to the 2017 Ghana Maternal Health Survey, among adolescents 15-19yrs who are married, only 17% use modern contraceptives and only 32% of those within this age bracket not married but sexually active use modern contraceptives with the adolescent unmet need for contraception at high 51% while that of unmet family planning need among married women aged 15 to 19yrs is 50.7%. Teenage pregnancy rate currently stands at 14.2% with some regions at a high 20% even in the face of increasing school enrolment rates- implying that increasingly, many girls drop out of school due to pregnancies and the majority unfortunately do not re-enter school after birth.
Ghana is one of the countries with high individual out of pocket expenditures on sexual and reproductive health. The greatest proportion of our SRHR and family planning programming is funded by donors and external supporters while the very minimal from government sources is fast shrinking. I led the MSIG Youth Advisory Board in collaboration with other youth groups to advocate for increased domestic fundingfor youth SRHR and family planning. On 9th May 2019 we held the first ever Youth SRHR parliament where I served as the speaker. The parliament bought together government representatives and other stakeholders where young people used compelling evidence and debate to justify the importance of government investment in SRHR and how that translates into sustainable development. We used the occasion to remind and hold government to account on several commitments it made, promising to increase domestic funding for SRHR and family planning such as the Abuja Declaration in 2001 and the Programme of Action (PoA) of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).
I believe that the most effective partnership is a host of enthusiastic youth working for a common purpose. Therefore when I became the Chair for the Ghana Health Service Youth Advisory Board, with the support of the Ghana Health Service and other organizations, I led the Youth Advisory Board to successfully organize two National Adolescent Health Ambassadors Camps among other strategies to train adolescent health ambassadors to advocate for the health and SRHR of young people across all regions of Ghana. Over the two year period, we have trained close to 1000 adolescent health advocates across the country while a host of others join this cohort annually.
With the opportunity to participate in EDD19, I hope to leverage this platform, the networks and the high level panels to advance this cause and foster impactful paths for addressing inequalities in a way that leaves no one behind in our quest to achieve an all-inclusive sustainable development. I hope also to leverage the expertise and energies of colleague young leaders to build positive partnerships beyond EDD19 to continually tackle inequalities and the world’s most pressing challenges.