The last few days have been full of meaningful deliberations and conversations around global development issues. Just last month, I was at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Kigali, Rwanda, where I had the honour of being one of the co-chairs. We talked about the various strategies to transform Africa. As is expected, making the most of Africa’s demographic dividend was one of the key themes that were discussed.
However, we can’t do that without ensuring the health and well-being of Africa’s millions. While the continent faces many health challenges, women, children and adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to them, leading to unacceptably high maternal and child mortality rates and adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes for adolescents. The World Health Organization estimates that 550 women died daily in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 due to preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, young adolescent girls continue to face a higher risk of pregnancy-related complications and death as a result of high rates of malnutrition and traditional practices such as early marriages.
We must realize that Africa can’t progress if we ignore the societal aspect of development, a large part of which relates to ensuring the health and well-being of marginalized population groups such as women, children and adolescents. Doing that will require strong leadership, not just from national governments and civil society organizations, but also from the private sector and communities themselves, especially young people. This became clearer to me as I headed from Kigali to the Women Deliver Conference 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark, where many stakeholders had gathered to find solutions to the challenges that affect women and girls.
At the conference, I had the privilege of meeting and listening to some very inspiring young leaders who are helping bring about big changes in maternal and adolescent health and ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. These young leaders must be celebrated for their conviction and passion. The four listed below have become advocates and agents of real change in their respective countries in Africa, and I applaud them for standing up for their rights and those of their brothers and sisters across the continent.
The youth of Africa are our future, and their involvement is absolutely necessary to the realization of our vision of sustainable development. We must ensure their health and well-being, and give them the support that they need, as they seek creative ways to bring about progress.
Angeline Makore, Zimbabwe
Angeline is an exceptional young leader from Zimbabwe, who is passionate about the health and well-being of women and girls in her country. As a young person, she was involved in rescuing child marriage victims and sexually abused girls, and offered psychosocial support to teenage mothers. This inspired her to work on reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health (RMNCAH) issues as a volunteer at Girl Child Network Zimbabwe. Angeline also founded Spark R.E.A.D (Resilience, Empowerment, Activism and Development), a non-profit organization that focuses on RMNCAH issues. The organization runs the SparkGirls mentorship programme, which provides tailor-made trainings on sexual and reproductive health education to adolescent girls. Spark R.E.A.D also links girls from underprivileged backgrounds with established women leaders to help the former find role-models and mentors. In addition, Angeline writes a blog on family planning, a platform that she uses to express her thoughts on reproductive health from the perspective of the youth community.
In 10 years’ time, Angeline hopes to be a seasoned public health professional and a celebrated women's rights activist. She also believes that young people should be the change they want to see, and that it is vital for them to be included in decision-making processes.
Irene Zalira, Malawi
As a community monitoring, evaluation and learning manager with Theatre for a Change (TfaC), Irene is devoted to improving the sexual and reproductive health of vulnerable and marginalized groups. She is also the co-founder of Growing Ambitions, an organization which provides comprehensive counseling, mentorship and career guidance to young teenage mothers, girls and young women in areas around Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.
Irene rightfully views health as a human right. For most young girls in Malawi and across the globe, having access to quality RMNCAH information and services is a matter of life and death. Growing up, Irene herself had little or no access to reliable sources of information on sexual and reproductive health. And she decided to change that so others won’t find themselves in a similar situation.
Irene considers the involvement of young people in not just global development and health related processes, but also those at the community level, as absolutely critical to ensuring that their rights are safeguarded. Committed to this cause herself, she hopes to transform Growing Ambitions into the biggest national organization in Malawi providing mentorship support to girls and young women at all education levels.
Mark Gachagua, Kenya
Mark’s work centres on empowering adolescent girls and youth with sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) related information, especially that which focuses on the importance and proper use of modern contraceptives. Along with his team, he works in geographical areas that have a high prevalence of teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. He also works with policy-makers and key stakeholders to ensure that key health policies are implemented. Growing up in Kenya, Mark enrolled in a programme that was supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through Rutgers and the Centre for the Study of Adolescence. This inspired him to start working on issues related to the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people.
Mark is a firm believer in the creative potential of young people to find solutions to the problems faced by communities. He believes that their energy and brilliance can be a key enabler to bring about sustainable development and change, and insists that the Sustainable Development Goals can only be achieved if young people have as much of a say in the decision-making processes as adults.
Mark describes himself as a budding feminist, and envisions a world in which every birth is intended and where young people have equal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Kelebogile Simula, Botswana
Kelebogile began her work in RMNCAH in 2014, when she became part of the Young Women’s Leadership Project on sexual and reproductive health. Currently completing her master’s in clinical social work at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she has been conducting campaigns and workshops on issues such as gender-based violence and learning more about feminist leadership and advocacy through the project. She took up RMNCAH issues because of her passion for the health and well-being of women and girls.
Kelebongile grew up in a rural community in Botswana, where conversations about sexual and reproductive health and rights were taboo. Her outlook changed when she volunteered as a global youth ambassador for education in her community. In 2014, she was appointed the regional coordinator for the 10,000 Girls Initiative, and was selected as one of the Women Deliver Young Leaders in 2015. She continues to use these platforms to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education and empowerment of girls and women by providing them with opportunities for education. She believes that young people have the power and ability to bring about the necessary change in their communities.
Kelebogile hopes to be a policy-maker who can ensure that the voices of young people are heard in decision-making circles, including multilateral and global fora, especially those relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights.