LABADI, GHANA – Education about sexuality and reproductive health is a serious political issue in many Western countries. Elections are won or lost on topics like abortion and “family” values. But in Ghana, and in many other developing countries, family planning is a matter of life and death, especially for girls and young women.
Six years ago, when I was a girl growing up in a slum in southern Ghana, it was normal to hear stories of teenagers having abortions; of 14-year-olds giving birth; and of 18-year-old men beating their prepubescent girlfriends because they refused to wash their partner’s clothes. No one in a position of authority – like parents or teachers – seemed concerned that the victims were unmarried girls, often below the legal age of consent.
This was my “normal.” Many classmates dropped out of school after becoming pregnant. Others died as they opted for abortions in unlicensed facilities.
If I could see these problems so clearly, why couldn’t the adults in my life do something about them?
In the part of Ghana where I grew up, education about sexuality was the limiting factor. Young women and girls lacked access to even the most basic information about reproductive health. The subject was not taught in schools, owing to “cultural sensitivities.” Parents and educators were not much help, either; many believed that talking about sex with children would cause them to be more promiscuous. So, instead of being the first place to turn, family and teachers became a last resort. Many of us turned to one another; others went online, where information is often inaccurate.
The lack of sex education has caused severe harm to Ghana’s youth. According to a recent survey by the US-based Guttmacher Institute, 43% of girls, and 27% of boys, engaged in sexual intercourse before their 20th birthday. Even more shocking, 12% of Ghanaian girls under 15 have had sex at least once (compared to 9% of boys). Of those who are sexually active today, only 30% use any form contraceptive, and just 22% use a modern one (like condoms). In a country with high teenage birthrates and staggering levels of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, these percentages are deeply troubling.
Birth control can be a lifeline for young women in particular. The United Nations Population Fund, for example, estimates that increased use of contraceptives in developing countries would reduce annual maternal deaths by 70,000, and infant deaths by 500,000. In Ghana, broadening access to modern contraception is a crucial starting point for improving the long-term health of children and expectant mothers.
For starters, governments should emphasize young people’s sexual health by offering a comprehensive instruction in reproductive health issues, including topics related to contraceptive methods, how to communicate in relationships, and where to access information and support related to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Governments must also increase partnerships with civil-society groups.
And yet Ghana’s young people cannot rely on adults to do all the work; we must advocate on our own behalf. Earlier this year, I helped launch a youth-led initiative called My Teen Life, to give young people a voice in how we talk about sexuality in rural parts of Ghana. Thanks to the generous support of the Global Changemakers initiative in Switzerland, this project is off to a promising start. It is already educating parents and guardians about how to talk to their children about sexual health; providing skills training to teenage mothers; and working to break the cycle of poverty and early childbirth.
To date, My Teen Life has reached more than 100 teenagers and their families, and a first group of teen mothers has been trained to make jewelry and slippers to generate income. We hope to expand these and other outreach efforts to many more Ghanaian and other African teens in the coming months and years.
Such initiatives are meant to appeal to girls in ways that government programs do not. Until recently, “family planning” in Ghana was offered only to married couples. Though that has changed somewhat, many women, even those who are married, are still prevented from accessing quality services because of patriarchal family structures.
In our small way, My Teen Life is reaching out, effectively, to young people. We are helping them learn and understand what happens as they grow, and how best to make decisions that will set their future course in life. We are empowering every young girl we work with to stay in school, and stressing that if they express their sexuality, they must retain control over what happens to their body. Much more work remains to be done, but my colleagues and I believe that when young people provide solutions to their own problems, lasting change is more likely to follow.
Esenam Amuzu is a European Development Days 2017 Young Leader.