Thank you, Director of the Programme:
Dr Esiet, Convenor of the Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights
The Honourable Prof Gyan Baffour, the Minister of Planning in Ghana
H.E. Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women
H.E. Jayathma Wickramanayake, UN Secretary General Youth Envoy
H.E. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director, UNFPA
Delegates from the various Youth Forums
I would like to begin by extending a warm South African welcome and fraternal greetings to each and every one of our distinguished guests; to the youth assembled here from across this incredibly vast and wonderful African continent; and to every individual present in this room today.
It gives me immense pleasure to welcome you to South Africa at this critical juncture in our unfolding democracy. The launch of the Youth Pre-conference, ahead of the 8th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights (ACSHR), takes place at the dawn of a new era in South Africa.
On this day, 28 years ago, President Nelson Mandela woke up as a free man for the first time in 27 years. This followed his release from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990, hence yesterday was the 28th anniversary of this momentous occasion. President Jacob Zuma has declared this year as The Year of Nelson Mandela, in honour of what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday. As a nation, we have the responsibility to uphold Madiba’s values and vision.
Our country is undergoing a period of fundamental change, and young people should be at the epicentre of this renewal. We have recently returned from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, where our mission was to attract investors and restore hope in our economy.
I can boldly say that after our participation at WEF, the world is more confident about the socio-economic stability of South Africa. Our currency is strengthening steadily and confidence has been restored in our future growth.
South Africa’s development strategies are underpinned by the National Development Plan (NDP), as the overarching long-term plan of the country. The NDP, our Vision 2030, singles out the youth as the major catalysts in boosting economic growth. The NDP stipulates clearly that, “By 2030, people living in South Africa should have no fear of crime, Women, children and those who are vulnerable should feel protected.”
As government, our mission is to transform the economic landscape and make it more inclusive and address the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. The youth and women, in particular, are at the core of South Africa’s development agenda.
It is against this backdrop that the theme of this year’s gathering, “Advancing the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls in Africa,” resonates with South Africa’s vision. This is a formidable theme, I believe, given the context we currently exist in, as a global community.
Since the dawn of democracy, the government of the Republic of South Africa embarked on a transformation agenda, which includes the empowerment of women as well as the promotion of gender equality. The late President Nelson Mandela, in his inaugural speech, committed to ending all forms of discrimination, especially against women.
“Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”
Despite these early commitments, women and youth continue to be disadvantaged. Even though the majority of Africa’s population is constituted by young people, with those under 15 at 41%, according to the World Bank, the youth population group accounts for 60% of all the unemployed in Africa. Statistics indicate an even direr situation in Botswana, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, South Africa and several other countries. In South Africa, unemployment rate amongst youth is currently at 26% (Statistics South Africa).
Of relevance to this conference is the fact that young women feel the sting of unemployment even more sharply. Additionally, in some parts of the world, girls and young women do not have the same access to education and training as their male peers. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa one in eight girls is married by the age of 15 and one in seven has given birth by the age of 17 (World Inequality Database in Education (WIDE), 2013). These girls are as a result, deprived of their rights and ability to make decisions about their lives, including sexual health and rights.
If we ignore the issue of promoting sexual health and rights, young women will continue to be denied access to education and employment – the key indicators that ensure successful transition into adulthood.
Recognising the gravity of issues mentioned above, and in an attempt to address current and future manifestations, the African Union declared 2017 as the year of “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investment in Youth”.
With 60% of the African population currently under 24, it is clear that realising sustainable development on the continent, and universal health and wellbeing, are contingent on the extent to which African governments are willing to invest in their youth. According to Stats SA, 30,1% of the South African population is aged younger than 15 years.
However, there remains a painstaking question on how the African technocrats and planners would respond to and confront the challenge of harnessing this dividend. President Nelson Mandela reminds us that “significant progress is always possible if we ourselves plan every detail and allow intervention of fate only on our own terms.” On this basis, member countries of the African Union adopted the African Youth Charter in 2006, followed by development of National Youth Policies.
Furthermore, a number of regional and global instruments were also devised, such as the Maputo Plan of Action for the Operationalization of the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Continental Policy Framework (2016–2030); the African Union Gender Policy (2009); the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage (2004); Africa Health Strategy (2016–2030); Agenda 2063; goal 5 of the sustainable development goals (SDG’s), etc.
The South African government therefore, informed by the African Youth Charter (AYC), the United Nations World Programme of Action for Youth, developed the National Youth Policy (NYP). The NYP is based on vision 2030 - the National Development Plan (NDP), which provides for the health system that works for everyone, comprising an appropriate balance between preventative, health promotion and curative services that are affordable and accessible to all.
It is therefore without doubt that, actions by the youth sector to address the social determinants of health, such as: poverty, inequality, unemployment and malnutrition, would contribute significantly towards improved health outcomes including promoting sexual reproductive health and rights.
Ladies and gentlemen, all these efforts are intended to accelerate development of young people and to specifically advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women in Africa and around the world.
In advancing the sexual health and rights of women, the main issues which this conference must to look at include: “Whether there are detailed plans through which these instruments ought to be implemented”; Whether there are adequate resources allocated for implementation purposes”; Whether there are clear monitoring, evaluation and reporting mechanisms in place with clear consequences for lack of implementation; and Whether the youth are acknowledged as an important resource for advancement of their own development.
Honoured guests, in answering the issues I just raised and in view of growing national and international discourse around women’s rights and emancipation, it remains true that no real conversation about women’s empowerment can be complete without genuine, multi-stakeholder agreement and deliberation on the fundamental sexual and reproductive health and rights of women. We have an obligation to continue ensuring that these essential rights are constantly respected and protected, across all areas of society.
It is for this reason among various others, that an Africa-wide Conference on Sexual Health and Rights is held to contribute to the aspiration of “the Africa we want” as espoused in the Agenda 2063. The united voices of African youth, will certainly contribute solutions that would help in painting a picture of what they want for themselves, the future generations and the continent. This would be in line with Article 26 of the African Youth Charter, which states that youth have a duty, amongst others, to become custodians of their own development.”
Why does it matter? These are simple ways, I believe, of asking a very important question: “Why are we here”?
It is my view that we are here today because we all are believers in the indubitable notion of human rights. Beyond commitment to the idea, we are resolute in our conviction that every individual must do what they must to ensure that each person: young or old; male or female; rich or poor; black or white; and regardless of sexual orientation, must have their intrinsic human rights defended at all costs. Empowering women and girls and ensuring equitable investments in their human capital are essential for sustainable development.
As the great African American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., eloquently affirmed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I believe we are here today, because we all subscribe to the idea of justice: for all men, women and children, in Africa and around the world.
It is imperative to note that significant progress has been made on the continent, in the past decade, in advancing the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women. The continent has witnessed considerable reduction in maternal mortality ratios, a decrease in HIV infections and adolescent birth rates, a stable rise in the use of contraceptives, and various other positive developments. For example, the rate at which the population in South Africa are being infected by HIV and Aids has been declining year on year from 1,77% in 2002 to 1,27% in 2016 (Statistics SA, 2017).
However, there are perennial challenges that still endure. Issues such as the lack of implementation of policies and restricted access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services have stifled progress. Despite the expansion of educational services in the region, youth empowerment and investment in women and girls has remained limited, thus contributing to an entrenchment of the economic factors that fuel adolescent sexuality on the continent.
It unfortunate that institutions of higher learning remained unaffordable for many students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. It is against this backdrop that government committed to providing free higher education for students from poor and working class backgrounds, whose household income is less than R350, 000.
Notwithstanding our indisputable commitment to building capacity among African youth and women, we still have a long way to go. This calls for African governments to reinforce their efforts and collectively invest towards the empowerment of youth and women.
I trust that the 8th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights will come up with viable ways of reinforcing our commitment to these noble objectives. I wish you the best of success in your deliberations over the next two days.