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Secure Africa's Future by Ensuring Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health for All

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African government leaders meet this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to chart a forward-looking agenda building on commitments made at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. At that conference, governments placed the human rights and empowerment of women, including their reproductive health and rights, squarely at the center of population policies and sustainable development.

As former president of Mozambique, I join with others in pride for the progress we have achieved. Policies and programs inspired by Cairo have saved and improved millions of lives in Africa. They have been levers for our continent's increasing dynamism. But more needs to be done to ensure a prosperous tomorrow, one where all our people enjoy their rights, dignity and health. The future of Africa is at stake.

As co-chair of the High-Level Task Force for ICPD, I know that if governments agree to uphold sexual and reproductive rights and health for all, they will also be helping Africa reduce poverty and meet its development objectives, while capitalizing on current economic growth.

In spite of recent progress, grim realities cannot be ignored. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for over half of the 800 maternal deaths that occur globally each day. Our region's rate of unsafe abortion is the highest in the world -- over 5 million each year -- with 25 percent performed on adolescent girls. More than 45 percent of African women and girls experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Thirteen million African girls under 18 are married, increasing their risks of early child-bearing, HIV, persistent poverty, and domestic violence. And over 4 million youth in Africa are infected with HIV.

These are preventable problems with cost-effective solutions. Solving them is a matter of political leadership, backed by resources. No country can afford to forgo opportunities to make sexual and reproductive health and rights a reality in the 21st century. These priorities are keys to unleashing the full energies and talents of our people, especially women and young people. They must be pillars of any sound post-2015 global development agenda.

The High-Level Task Force for ICPD calls upon leaders to consider four policy recommendations crucial for Africa's development transformation:

  1. Enact legal and policy reforms that respect, protect and fulfill sexual and reproductive rights for all. We must repeal legal barriers -- including restrictions on access to contraception and safe abortion -- that block women and young people from getting the sexual and reproductive services they need. We must reject harmful social norms of control over human sexuality, including those related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Too many of our brothers and sisters face horrific acts of violence and discrimination on this basis. This is not the Africa we want.
  2. Accelerate universal access to quality sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. No woman or adolescent girl should die giving birth, or from complications of unsafe abortion, a major killer of our women and girls. This is a grave social injustice: Where abortion is illegal, it is the poorest women and girls who risk their lives.
  3. Guarantee universal access to comprehensive sexuality education for all young people, both in and out of school. Youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services and comprehensive sexuality education are keys to empowering Africa's 300 million young people, preventing early pregnancy, halting the spread of HIV and promoting gender equality. They are also essential, alongside quality education and decent work opportunities, to realizing the full potential of Africa's demographic window of opportunity.
  4. End violence against women and girls and impunity for perpetrators. We must focus on prevention, putting a stop to violence against women and girls in the first place. To do this we must engage men and boys from all walks of life. And we must end child marriage and female genital mutilation within a generation. It is also high time that we secure universal access to critical services and access to justice for all victims and survivors of gender-based violence.

Leaders gathered in Addis have the opportunity to adopt an agreement to fully meet the needs and rights for all, with the empowerment of women and young people and sexual and reproductive health and rights at the center. This will put us on the right path to bolster the resilience of our people and families, the vibrancy of our communities and the sustainable, inclusive growth of our nations.

Joaquim Chissano is former president of Mozambique and co-chair of the High Level Task Force for ICPD, a group of government, civil society, and private sector leaders working to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights is central to the global development agenda.