Speech: “Young people need their voices to be heard”—Executive Director

Remarks by United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the London Family Planning Summit, Spotlight Session on “Transitions to Adulthood and the Importance of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights to Girls’ Empowerment” in London.

Date: 12 July 2017

One thing for which we will remember UNFPA Executive Director, the late Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, is that he legitimized feminist masculinity and helped young men—and men in general—to gain their voice and commitment to this subject. This is something that we are eternally grateful for, especially what this has done for young people.

For us as UN Women, it is very important that we focus on leaving no one behind. This era, with so many young people, is the first time in history in which, when we talk about leaving no one behind, we are talking about young people and women.

Girls are facing the highest rate of new infections of HIV and AIDS, with around 7,500 young women between 15-24 years acquiring HIV every week. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth together are the main cause of death among adolescent girls 15-19 in developing countries. It is girls and young women who are also the greatest victims of gender-based violence, including sexual assaults, and which is even worse in the areas where there are conflicts. In many of the countries that still have laws that discriminate against women, those laws impact most severely on girls, as well as on women in general. So, the case is made for a focus on women and girls.

The good news is that comprehensive sexuality education works, especially when it also addresses issues of gender inequality. The problem is there just are not enough of these education programmes. We must task and scale, and scale, and scale. And let us also focus on peer education, because it is easy to scale and it is affordable. It is also important to align education and to change curricula to include some of the values that strengthen rights language; that put sexual and reproductive health and rights on the syllabus; and that ensure the deliberate link is made between eliminating violence against women and women’s economic empowerment and ensuring that the rights of women are respected overall.

It is also important to make sure, in South-South cooperation, that sexual and reproductive health and rights is part of the discourse. There is so much learning that could and should be taking place between countries at differing levels of development, which would allow a bottom-up process of development to be entrenched.

Young people need their voices to be heard. In my own experience in South Africa, I had the great pleasure, when I was for one day the Acting President, to sign into law same-sex marriages. I also had the task of leading a public service committee when we were campaigning and taking the issue of safe abortion to communities. Out of that experience I learned the importance of talking one on one, community to community, in order to make sure we have the strongest possible buy-in for the changes and for the rights-based approach. In addition, it was important to speak to health workers and to get their buy-in.

So, my last message is the importance of the programmatic approach, of working at country level and at community level, and that when we work with young people, especially from the education system, and those who are out of school, we need to be targeted and to make them a priority.

Thank you.