By Dr. Jotham Musinguzi & Nargis Shirazi
ON World Population Day, we reflect on what a growing global population of 7 billion people means to us, in Uganda and around the world. Each year we turn our focus to a different population issue, and this year we direct our attention to engaging youth – because the decisions our young people make today will help shape generations for years to come.
In Uganda, we have the second youngest population in the world with 75 percent of the population under age 30, and it is estimated that our population will increase at least fivefold by the end of the century. This means Ugandan youth have an unprecedented opportunity to make a positive and lasting impact in their communities.
While a growing – and young – population is full of potential, it also presents new and unexpected challenges. Today, nearly 40 percent of Ugandan women who want to prevent pregnancy are not using a modern form of contraception, and on average, nearly one in four girls between the ages of 15-19 are becoming pregnant each year. Additionally, our maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world.
But, that can change. By providing youth with comprehensive, youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services and education, we can help improve the health and rights of young women and men in Uganda. Together, we can end teen pregnancy and prevent maternal deaths.
When young people are empowered with the right information and tools, they are powerful agents of change. They influence the social and economic development of their families, communities and nations by challenging social norms and asking their governments to recognize their voices.
Today, Uganda’s youth are asking for the information, care and rights they need to plan their families and futures – and in the coming weeks, young people will continue to raise awareness about these issues in the lead-up to and during the first National Family Planning Conference on July 28 to 30.
Just days before the conference, many of Uganda’s young people will participate in a youth pre-conference facilitated in partnership with UNFPA Uganda, Partners in Population and Development – Africa Regional Office and the It Takes Two campaign, an initiative to create a movement of engaged and active young people who are educated and informed about family planning and the need to invest in contraception.
The youth pre-conference will provide an opportunity for the country’s most influential youth advocates for sexual and reproductive health to participate in workshops, strategize with peers and make their voices heard. Participants in the pre-conference will create a call to action that expresses their hopes, concerns and ideas for the way forward that will be presented to Uganda’s key stakeholders, including the Ministry of Health and UNFPA Uganda at the national conference the following week.
This pre-conference is particularly important as we must approach these issues with intergenerational respect and open communication to ensure that all girls and boys can reach their potential. With the Millennium Development goals set to expire in 2015, the mobilization of adolescents, youth and the wider public in support of greater investment in the future of young people is critical to achieving sustainable development.
Young people, when given a voice, can drive change. Their perspectives, experiences and willingness to ask tough questions offer the greatest hope for challenging the social norms and policies that harm girls and women, including early marriage and adolescent pregnancy.
While meeting the sexual and reproductive health needs and rights of current and future generations presents daunting challenges, Uganda’s young people are ready and willing to help overcome these barriers. With the majority of Uganda’s population under the age of 30, now is the time to engage and equip young advocates to be tomorrow’s leaders.
Today’s youth are working tirelessly to advance the well-being of our families, communities and country. Now, we ask you to join us to ensure all young people, today and tomorrow, can live long and healthy lives.
Dr. Jotham Musinguzi is Regional Director for the Africa Regional Office of Partners in Population and Development. Nargis Shirazi is the It Takes Two Campaign Project Manager, a Women Deliver Young Leader and Founder of the Wo-Man Foundation.