Africa’s leaders strongly reaffirm the importance of education, well-being, and sexuality education for adolescents and young people

On 6 December 2021, in Johannesburg, Ministers of education, health, gender, and youth in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) expressed overwhelming support to continue their joint efforts towards creating a better future for adolescents and young people in the region by empowering them and protecting their health and well-being.

The recommitment is a clear response to young people’s call for more information and education on sexual health: less than 50% of young people in the ESA region demonstrate accurate knowledge about HIV prevention and transmission, resulting in HIV infections, unintended pregnancies, and gender-based violence, mostly affecting girls and young women.

At the Ministerial Meeting, Dr Regina Mhaule, Deputy Minister of Basic Education in South Africa said: “Africa has a large population of young people, and we must do all in our power to make opportune of this demographic dividend. Our young people are our hope for the development of our continent, Africa. As leaders of today, we need to prioritise the health and wellbeing of young people for the betterment of Africa.”

The high-level virtual Ministerial Meeting, held during the International Conference on AIDS and sexually transmitted infections in Africa (ICASA) 2021, reaffirmed and expanded the commitment first made in 2013, where Ministries of Health and Education from 20 countries in the ESA region joined forces with regional UN organisations, therein UNESCO, UNAIDS and UNFPA, to agree on a joint commitment to promote adolescent sexual and reproductive health (SRH) known as the ESA Commitment.

Recognizing the need for a more systematic scale up of good quality education and health services in the region, the aim of the ESA Commitment was to increase the coverage of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and provide access to sexual and reproductive health services thereby reducing unintended pregnancies, and eliminating child marriage and gender-based violence among young people in the region by 2020. The renewed commitment, which runs until 2030, upholds the same objectives whilst also including new issues such as mental health and the pandemic.

Ms. Joyce Ouma, Influence and Engagement Advisor from Y+, the Global Network of Young People living with HIV, said at the Ministerial Meeting: “As young people we commit to holding our ministers accountable and we are ready to engage to ensure that they live up to their commitments and fulfilling their promises to us.”

The renewed commitment reflects the needs of governments, adolescents, young people, communities, and development partners in the region

An evaluation of the 2013 ESA Commitment revealed progress in reducing new HIV infections, increasing comprehensive HIV knowledge and creating a conducive policy environment, but it also revealed that significant gaps and barriers still exist to the full realization of the ESA Commitment targets, therefore requiring accelerated efforts to reduce early and unintended pregnancies, gender-based violence, school dropouts, and HIV infections as well as curb the effect of humanitarian emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Extensive consultations at national and regional levels with governments, adolescents and young people, communities, faith leaders and development partners across sectors has now led to a new updated regional commitment and targets for 2022-2030. This renewed commitment by the Ministers of Health, Gender, Education and Youth is expected to accelerate investments to the education, health and well-being of adolescents and young people in the ESA region.

Professor Mbulelo Dyasi, President of the South African Pentecostal Bishops Council and the National Chairperson of the South African Network of Religious Leaders living and affected by HIV&AIDS (SANERELA) spoke to the assembled Ministers saying:

“Young Africans must have the facts and confidence to stay safe and healthy, live a dignified life and contribute positively to their community and countries. They must trust us, their elders, to tell them the truth. Therefore, as Religious Leaders we pledge our support today to the ESA Commitment that seeks to enhance efforts in ensuring the health and wellbeing of our children and young people.”

Sexuality education and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

UNESCO’s framework for action on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, includes life skills-based HIV and sexuality education as part of quality education towards achieving SDG 4. Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) facilitates the development of accurate and age-appropriate knowledge, attitudes and skills that contribute to positive relationships, health and well-being, and respect for human rights and gender equality.

Through its Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future (O3) Programme, UNESCO plays a key role in supporting education, health and other relevant authorities in developing local programmes in sub-Saharan Africa that aim for all adolescents and young people to attain positive health, education, and gender equality outcomes.

In collaboration with UNAIDS, UNFPA, UN Women, and WHO, UNESCO published the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, which outlines the key concepts, topics and learning objectives which should guide the development of locally-adapted curricula for learners aged 5 – 18+.

About the ESA commitment

In the renewed ESA Commitment the countries reaffirmed their determination to achieve the targets from the 2013 ESA Commitment, and in addition ensure the following by 2025:

95% of adolescents and young people are reached with good-quality, age appropriate, culturally relevant and evidence-based sexuality education

adolescent and youth friendly SRHR services are integrated into Universal Health Coverage packages
a functional multi-sectoral framework is in place to facilitate linkages between sexuality education programs for in and out of school youth and youth friendly integrated SRH and psychosocial services
country laws and regulations that guarantee access to young people to sexual and reproductive health care, information, and education
increased number of youth-led organizations who participate in policy- and decision-making processes