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Opening Remarks by Ms. Argentina Matavel at the West and Central Africa Regional Stakeholders Consultation for Educated, Healthy and Thriving Adolescents and Young People

I am delighted to be with you all today for this important consultative meeting; your presence is testimony of your dedication and commitment to the well-being of Africa’s youth – the topic of this consultation. I know that we, in the United Nations, do not hold monopoly of the belief that the key to a transformed and brighter future rests on the development of young people. Reason why during these two days we want to listen and work with representatives of young people to ensure that any proposed intervention is owned by the youth.

Dear partners, Like me, I’m sure you have had enough of hearing that our region of West and Central Africa is lagging behind in all SDG indicators. Maternal mortality is the highest in the world, and the main drivers are early marriage, female genital mutilation, teen pregnancy, and chief of all, high illiteracy rates most especially among girls. It does not have to be that way! This initiative today, if followed through, is one of a few that will meaningfully contribute to a more positive outcome. An outcome in which young people, young girls, have choices and enjoy their rights. But in order to choose wisely, one must know, be informed, and have options.

Millions of young girls - and boys too - are trapped into a life they did not choose. We see many young people out of school, their dreams shattered, and burdened with the responsibility of raising children when they themselves are still children. We know the story too well: It often starts with a girl being married off too early, or finding out too late that she is pregnant. Evidence around the world shows that when adolescent girls and boys have access to age-appropriate information about reproductive health and sexuality, and when that information is coupled with access to services, their attitudes and behaviors are impacted positively. They are more likely to stay longer in school, delay starting a family, and engage in gainful employment. Ladies and gentlemen, I am speaking about comprehensive sexuality education.

Dear Friends, Dear Partners, We cannot stem the tide of development. Internet and social media are with us, they have reached far-flung villages and hamlets, across rivers, beyond forests and deserts. Either we give our young people the correct information ourselves, or they will learn it from wrong sources, with disastrous consequences. Comprehensive sexuality education is part of life skills that will equip them to be in control of their lives as opposed to falling victims to the unavoidable human natural process of growing up. It is, therefore, not an option but an imperative.

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, specializes in population dynamics, which are influenced by human sexuality, reproduction and migration. We partner with many countries around the world, from Africa to Asia, Latin America to Europe, in our quest to ensure that young people’s potential is unleased and their aspirations are fulfilled. We have gathered a wealth of evidence and experiences, and devised the best methodologies to tackle this difficult but necessary subject, and achieve the best results. We work with diverse stakeholders, from political and business leaders, inter-faith religious leaders, traditional gate-keepers, media, civil society and community-based organisations, and young people themselves.

Oftentimes, at the beginning of our programmes many are skeptical. However, after carefully considering the content of our materials, many ministries of Education, of youth and of health, have embraced the programme; and we have worked with those governments and partners to adjust the content and language to their specific context. Scientific evaluation of the programmes has shown a drastic reduction in school absenteeism and drop-outs, as young girls and boys learn how to manage menstrual periods hygienically, and as the rate of teen pregnancies and STI/HIV in schools dropped.

The proposed programme also targets training to Education inspectors and teachers on the use of appropriate language and modern methodologies to teach a subject that is traditionally considered a taboo. Ladies and gentlemen, Dear friends, The time has come for our Region to build on this momentum: governments, regional economic communities, networks of young people and civil society organizations, support the West and Central Africa Commitment. This commitment seeks to equip young people with effective knowledge and skills so they can be educated, healthy, resilient, thriving and socially responsible decision-makers - better citizens.

UN agencies such as UNFPA, UNESCO, UNAIDS, and others, are ready to walk alongside you in this journey. Honourable and distinguished participants, Now is the Time! the World is moving and None can stem the tide of Change. Either we shape the change our way, OR face a future, a very near future, that we did not choose! We, YOU, have a Choice! I thank you