During June each year, youth month, the youth of yesteryear is often lauded for its efforts, while the youth of today are criticized for lacking the will and drive to change their situation, circumstances and communities. The obstacles faced by the youth of today relate to teenage pregnancy, HIV, and inadequate sex and reproductive health (SRH) services.
This despite the fact that 18 years ago the International Conference on Population and Development highlighted the importance of gender equality, women’s empowerment and family planning in the attainment of development plans, and despite the fact that Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa was launched during the African Union Conference of Ministers of Health in May 2009 and by the South African government in May 2012.
The Youth Lekgotla organised by United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) and Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke) was aimed at showing that while these policies do exist the implementation thereof, to the benefit of young people, is lacking. It also aimed to show that young people, especially young men, can and must engage in issues related to SRH and maternal mortality as clients and partners, as their predecessors did in 1976. Young people from various walks of life gathered to talk and network on the strategies to undertake in fulfilling these objectives.
Present at the Youth Lekgotla were members of UNFPA and the Departments of Social Development (DSD), Public Works and Arts and Culture. Representatives from the following universities: Wits, UCSF, UP and UJ, were also present. Representatives from a number of NGOs that work with young people, and on young people’s issues rounded off this already impressive list of attendees, including, but not limited to: CSVR, Lovelife, POWA, SACC, Sonke, and YWCA.
Presentations were delivered on a range of important topics, including:
- The regional policies that address, to varying degrees, the involvement of men;
- Young men’s perspective of SRH and the Green Paper on the Family by the DSD;
- A panel discussion on families’ perspective on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR);
- The correlation between intimate partner violence, teen pregnancy and young fathers;
- A preliminary report on a research study on absent fathers done by UJ’s Centre for the Study of Social Development in Africa and Sonke.
These presentations showed that young men face a number of individual, family, community and policy-based barriers either as clients for SRH services or as partners to clients of SRH or maternal health services. These make it difficult for them to obtain SRH services before fathering pregnancies. This in turn results in the fathering of pregnancies and eventually children which places a burden on young fathers who are unable to support their children which, in turn, leads to paternal absenteeism. The effects of intergenerational relationships and concurrent relationships on paternal absenteeism were also explored and discussed.
After the panel discussions and plenary questions and answers, participants broke up into five groups to discuss: (i) Young people, SRHR and HIV, (ii) Teenage pregnancy, (iii) Shifting social norms of parenthood, (iv) Involving young men in maternal health, and (v) SRH service delivery. The participants were advised to discuss the challenges faced in respect of those issues, and the manner in which to address these challenges on individual, community and national levels. One member of each group was called upon to report back on the findings of the group.
Among the many findings outlined by the participants are: the lack of comprehensive and clear sex education in schools; the hesitance parents have in allowing their children to learn about sex from sources other than themselves; the lack of knowledge by parents themselves of SRHR; the hostility faced by young people of both genders when accessing SRH or maternal health services; and the difficulty faced in using new information to alter behaviour. Among the suggestions made by the groups were: continued community involvement focusing on young men by NGOs, peer education endeavours, amending policies to allow NGOs easier access into schools, support of extra-mural and community activities, the education of health care providers.
The Youth Lekgotla was a resounding success and comes weeks before the DSD’s Population Conference. The challenges highlighted by the attendees at the Youth Lekgotla will help inform Sonke’s participation and engagement at the DSD’s Population Conference and also inform the manner in which Sonke, and the organisations present at the Youth Lekgotla, endeavour to engage young men in SRHR and maternal mortality.