Silvia Francisco, 31, was struggling with a dilemma. She was concerned about a family member who wasn’t seeking the medical treatment she urgently needed, because she feared being ostracized if anyone found out about her condition.
“She’s been HIV-positive for many years,” said Ms. Francisco, an activist for young people’s rights in the city of Cazenga, in Angola’s Luanda province. To better understand what her relative needed, she joined a UNFPA Safeguard Young People programme, aimed at empowering younger generations across Angola to take charge of their sexual and reproductive health.
Ms. Francisco was given accurate, up-to-date advice on treating and managing HIV and how to discuss it with her relative. “Being an activist helped me to help her, by sharing correct information about the disease. Today, she has accepted to follow all the protocols so that she can be healthy.”
Angola is wrangling with a widespread HIV epidemic, with some 2 per cent of the adult population infected, and women’s infection rates are three times higher than men’s. Raising awareness about sexual and reproductive health in the country hasn’t been straightforward though. “It’s been a constant battle to transmit information about sexuality, because there are still parents who think that talking about it with adolescents and young people will lead them to have sex,” explained Ms. Francisco.
“But through the programme, we always pass on the message of protection [against unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections] and delaying teenage courtship.”
Sexuality education, at school and beyond
High-quality sexuality education programmes teach adolescents and young adults the importance of safe sex not only through information on contraception and health check-ups, but by emphasizing consent, respect, and the need for careful decision making in their relationships.
Yet the topics covered in such programmes are also appropriate for a wider range of ages – for example younger children can learn about family relations, how to cope with puberty and menstruation, what consent means and how to recognize – and report – abuse and violence. These are considered essential life skills, a set of tools with which children and young adults are better equipped to face a litany of potential risks and threats to their health and rights – and be able to defend them.
Decades of research show this leads to positive health outcomes with lifelong impacts: Young people are more likely to wait before having sex, and when they do to practise safer sex, reducing sexually-transmitted infections – including HIV – and unintended pregnancies.
In Angola, extra-curricular, community-led initiatives are crucial, as almost one quarter of young women have never attended school; for boys the rate is just over 10 per cent. This points not only to dangerously low levels of overall schooling, but also to a severe gender imbalance. Rates of violence against women and girls are high meanwhile, with about one in three women aged 15 to 49 experiencing some type of physical or sexual abuse.
Unequal gender norms are perpetuated from an early age across the world, but sexuality education can challenge and change these biases, by teaching young people about gender inequality, gender-based violence and other harmful practices such as early and forced marriage. Equipped with this knowledge about their rights and about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, young people are less vulnerable to abuse and, crucially, can learn how to find help when needed.
Helping young people to reach their potential
To date, 90 young people from civil society organizations in Angola have been trained by the Safeguard Young People programme. These activists then led discussions among other groups of young women and girls across five provinces; so far in 2023 they have reached more than 10,000 young people.
Supported by the ministry of youth and sports and with funding from the Netherlands, the UNFPA programme aims to reach 60,000 young people in the next three years. And the initiatives will also be directed at parents, health professionals, teachers, community and religious leaders – all of whom can help spread the message on the importance of sexuality education.
Ms. Francisco is confident the programme is making a lasting impact on the lives of young people in Angola. “It is a magnificent thing… it’s changing lives and empowering young people about their sexual and reproductive health.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).