A writer once said that “the three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” This quote is relevant as we mark World Population Day, whose theme this year is “Family Planning – Empowering People, Developing Nations.”
Step into the mind of a young person, particularly a young man, and all three could be answered with one three-letter word: sex. Nothing to do? Have sex. Love someone? Express it, by having sex. Hoping for anything on Friday night? Sex!
Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek but it points to the need to address the needs of today’s youth, who make up over 50 per cent of our population, and come to terms that many are indeed sexually active. Despite not having comprehensive sexuality education in school. Despite being told not to. Despite not being physically, emotionally, or financially ready to deal with the very real consequences of it.
We must come to terms with that, because continuing to hide behind outdated policy and morals could handicap our country for decades, put some very real progress at risk, and cost us all dearly.
The prevalence of modern contraceptive in women over 18 stands at 58 per cent, one of the highest in developing countries, and a number to be proud of. But with a “demographic bulge” of youth barreling towards the age of majority, we must prepare for some tough work; work that is no longer funded by generous donors, but work that starts at home, with the very youth we talk so much about ... You guessed it, our kids.
A recent study targeting women aged 15-24 years in urban and peri-urban areas revealed that while respondents were familiar with modern methods of contraception and their general workings, misinformation remains a barrier to uptake.
For example, the belief that some contraceptive methods can cause infertility persists despite evidence that counters the assertion in all but rare cases.
These and things like fear of side effects, adverse reactions, access and partner approval, hamper uptake. And the consequences are very real, with devastating impacts from early pregnancy, unsafe abortion and the continued transmission of HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases that demand headlines far too frequently.
If we are to harness the incredible vibrancy of Kenya’s youth for socio-economic growth, we will need to invest in empowering our sons and daughters to take control of their futures by being fully informed. Comprehensive sexual education, not just biology, but how “stuff” really works, so they’re thoughtful in this age of “right here, right now.”
Girls and boys as young as 10 years old are having sex, and 18 per cent of all primary and secondary school-going girls become pregnant while in school; they are sexually active regardless of (comprehensive) sexual education, or lack thereof. Worse yet, over 50 per cent of these pregnancies end in abortion.
Call it “family planning” (which teenager will that term resonate with?) call it “life planning” (good, but still serious), call it whatever you want, just allow, engage, and educate young people on sexual health, so they’re empowered to make decisions for their bodies, and for their life.
Most young people are thinking about and trying to have sex no matter what we say or teach them. And we were too when we were young. We can empower them so that they are ready to be safe when they’re good and ready to become sexually active, and have the skills to avoid it before they are.
It’s commonly said that young women are more afraid of getting pregnant than they are of contracting HIV. Isn’t it terrifying that this is the state of our country today? Yet instead of putting their biases aside and engaging young people, our “leaders” hide in their offices and ban the advertising of condoms because it is “immoral.” This isn’t about you; this is about public health and the future of our young people and this country. Let’s do the right thing.
The writer is the managing director of DKT Healthcare International, Kenya and Uganda, that aims to improve access to reproductive health services