Today is World Population Day, a day established by the United Nations Development Programme to highlight the urgency and importance of population issues. Current estimates indicate that roughly 83 million people are being added to the world’s population every year. Even assuming that fertility levels will continue to decline, the global population is expected to grow from today’s 7.7 billion people to 9.7 billion 2050 and 10.9 billion 2100. This emerges from the latest United Nations (UN) World Population projections, according to the medium-variant projection.
The continent of Africa has the highest fertility rate in the world, with an estimated 4.6 children per woman, which is no surprise given that 24% of women have no access to contraceptive methods. Of course, fundamental to population is not only sex education but access to family planning both being topics that we are dedicated to improving here with our Right By Her campaign.
To find out more about these topics, we spoke to Professor Joachim Osur, a sexual health expert from AMREF Health Africa. Prof. Osur has previously appeared before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to give evidence on the effect of US foreign policy on access to family planning in Africa. Further, he has participated in shadow reporting to the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child to inform on status of reproductive health in children in Africa, so he could not be a better authority to speak on this topic.
RBH: What does a sexual expert do?
JO: I work on things related to population and development that people shy away from and which are very crucial. This includes encouraging people to be more open about sex and sexuality. I find that people are generally more comfortable talking about reproductive health rights, but not sexual health rights. Yet you cannot have reproduction without sexuality. And sexuality needs to be healthy, for reproductive functions to be healthy too.
RBH: What do you mean by healthy sexuality?
JO: Healthy sexuality is pleasurable, is voluntary, and is experienced without risk. Unless we start to talk more openly about these issues, we will keep having challenges such as sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and AIDS resulting from unprotected sex; higher incidences of sexual and gender-based violence and increasing incidences of teenage pregnancy. These challenges are partly as a result of sex which is unprotected, by people who breach other people’s rights, are not ready for it, or do not have enough knowledge to make informed choices. So it is very important to talk about sex and related rights so that everyone is well informed and able to make choices.
RBH: When should we start talking about sex?
JO: Talking about sex should start early in life. Humans are sexual beings. They are born with sexual organs. Sexual literacy should be age appropriate and context specific. For example, a middle class 14-year-old girl in Nairobi requires different education from a 14-year-old pastoralist who was married at 9 years of age. Sexuality needs to be prioritized for better outcomes and education in schools can help with this. Sexuality is not something that you talk about/ teach once and forget about it. Just like any other subject in schools, there is continuous learning; at pre-primary school level children should be able to identifying their body parts and as the ages advance, the education should get more complex so that as people mature, they should be conversant of the diverse and dynamic sexual beings that we become when we are adults. Overall, they should know that we all have different experiences and values but that we should all always experience sexuality in a safe and voluntary environment.
Just as sexuality education should be age appropriate and relevant to specific contexts, different institutions should be having different conversations on sexuality. For example, the ministry of education should be having conversations around sexual literacy. This will definitely help to reduce teenage pregnancies as well as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents. The more literate our young population is, the more confident they will be to decide when they will have sex and with whom. We also need to create safe spaces for the younger population to ask questions. The more they question, the more information and knowledge they gain and the more confident they become, to make their own decisions. At the policy level, we need policies to ensure that sex is voluntary and safe; and where rights are violated, that there should be redress for victims.
RBH: Any last words for Africa on this #WorldPopulationDay?
JO: We need to style up in Africa. We need to make sure that young people are equipped with the information they need to make informed decisions, which will literally affect their future. They should not feel pressured to engage in sex when they are not ready because of lack of capacity to decide. They should be equipped to make safe choices when they finally do have sex. Let’s not pretend that people are not having sex or experiencing sexuality. Let’s not pretend that our children are not sexual beings or that they will make the same choices as us. Let’s be realistic and address the sexual reality of our children and youth because times have changed, let’s avoid utopia and unrealistic imaginations about young people, they are sexual and this reality cannot be wished away. So let us talk about sex. Let us equip our future population with the knowledge and skills they need to determine the best lives they can have. Above all, let us respect sexual rights.
To find out more about the current status of sexual and reproductive health services across Africa, please do read Chapter 7 of the State of African Women report available on our website here.
The report highlights the rights that were promised girls and women across Africa when the Maputo Protocol was endorsed 16 years ago to the day by 51 African Nations, and the progress that is yet to be made to make these rights a reality.
Photos: Kobby Blay @kobbyblay