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Helping young people claim their right to sexual health

The Department for International Development (DFID) have put a welcome emphasis on the sexual and reproductive heath of adolescent girls and boys in their ‘Choice for women: planned pregnancies, safe births and healthy newborns’ (published 31 December 2010), a ‘Framework for Results’ in improving reproductive, maternal and newborn health in the developing world.

Adolescent girls and boys face many obstacles in exercising their rights to sexual and reproductive healthcare. Among other issues, stigma created around sexual issues by adults – parents, teachers, religious leaders and health service providers – stops young women and men accessing the services they need to stay safe and healthy.

Lack of choice of whether or not to have children, and poor access to sexual health services including contraceptives, result in a higher number of deaths of adolescent girls. Young women aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than older women. Having babies at a young age also increases a woman’s risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes in her lifetime. Almost half of all maternal deaths from unsafe abortion in Africa are in women under 25.

Harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation further erode the rights of young people, especially girls. Nearly 10% of all adolescent girls in low and middle income countries become mothers before they’re 16. In sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of girls are married. Girls aged 10-15 are five times more likely than women aged 20-24 to die in pregnancy or childbirth.

Research has also shown that child marriage can increase the risk of physical and sexual violence, HIV infection and mental illness among young brides.

We hope that DFID’s strategy will prioritise support for the provision of quality, adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health programmes that include good sexuality education, increased access to services including contraceptive choice and safe abortion, trained health providers, and the engagement of civil society to uphold and protect the rights of their young women and men.

This is essential if we’re to work with young people to prepare them for healthy and fulfilling lives.

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