We lean on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, those who have paved a way or opened a door for us.
As my tenure as UNFPA Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) draws to a close, I find myself pondering this feeling.
Enabling young people to unleash their full potential is at the heart of UNFPA’s mission which, in turn, fuels my life’s work.
Indeed, supporting and encouraging young people to realize their dreams and aspirations and contribute to the development of their communities and countries is an investment that benefits everyone.
African statesman and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put it best: “Any society that fails to tap into the energy and creativity of its youth will be left behind.
It is a truth that has guided how I have expanded our work with and for young people.
I started my role as Regional Director on October 1, 2013 and spent the first few days attending the 20 ICPD Africa Regional Conference in Addis Ababa. The negotiation of the regional outcome, the Addis Ababa Declaration on Population and Development in Africa Beyond 2014, was difficult and although it was adopted, reservations were expressed by a group of countries. What achieved resounding consensus was the recognition by all Member States that Africa’s youthful demographic structure had the potential to drive future economic growth and prosperity – if the right investments were made in youth.
This set the tone for my tenure: I was determined to give special and relentless attention to Africa’s youth.
One of my first tasks, therefore, was to launch UNFPA’s regional flagship program for young people, Safeguard Young People (SYP), a US$32 million investment that supported sexual and reproductive health and rights. (SDSR) and youth leadership in the region. since November 2013, and which is expected to extend over the next five years.
Young people in the region, especially adolescent girls and young women, face a severe lack of adequate sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. They are also burdened with child marriage, sexual and gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, HIV and STIs. These factors prevent young people from enjoying their youth, which prevents them from participating in social and economic activities.
I am pleased that in 2020, the SYP program reached 4.8 million young people with SRH and HIV services, and that over 6,500 young people were trained as SRHR advocates. The program has leveraged digital technology to expand its reach and has shown its importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through mobisite and the Tuneme.org app, SRHR information and services have been put directly into the hands of more than 4 million young people.
With unambiguous data on the increase in the population of young Africans and with the transition in 2015 to the inclusive sustainable development agenda, the youth movement has gained momentum. The rallying cry of young people – “nothing for us without us” – caught on and in me, the young people of the ESA region have found an ally. I was and remain ready to ensure that young people are prioritized in the region, placed at the center of all our work, always consulted and included as equal decision-makers.
As we head into 2030, the impatience of young people is increasingly evident. At the Generation Equality Forum in Paris this month – a global gathering to shape plans to end gender inequality by 2030 – young people spoke loud and clear what they want. Young leaders demanded results, accountability and access to resources that would help solve some of the most pressing development issues.
By joining forces across generations, we can be stronger and take the steps necessary to lead us to the Africa we want. It will certainly take the strength and determination of the 169 million young people in the ESA region to make a difference. When young Africans are healthy, educated and productive, their leadership, advocacy and action will see us through to 2030 and beyond.
This goal is within our reach and we are moving in the right direction.
A growing number of SRHR movements and organizations are actively including young people in their leadership and governance architectures. Young people are empowered and empowered to stand up and demand accountability for the commitments that have been made to sustainable, equitable and green development.
We must remember, however, that the window of opportunity to advance our youth is limited. Placing young people at the heart of sustainable development is both urgent and non-negotiable. Prioritizing and investing in young people is of the utmost importance because it is the only way for Africa to prosper.
Let us breathe new life into our work with and for young people. Let them rest on our shoulders.
And as I transition into a new role, I do so with confidence that while the shoulders of older generations may grow weary, the strength and vitality of young people will uplift us all and drive the agenda forward to ensure sexual health and reproduction and rights for all.
I salute the young people of Africa and I proudly say: Viva les jeunes, viva!