DAKAR – When Sokhna Aminatou Sarr started menstruating, as a young girl in Senegal who had not yet reached her teenage years, her mother warned that she would become pregnant if she went near any boys.
While taboos surrounding sexual and reproductive health may be common among older generations across West and Central Africa, they are also often perpetuated by teachers, religious leaders and health workers, the 27-year-old activist said.
“Doctors and nurses behave more like parents than health professionals, they should provide counseling and guidance but instead pass judgment,” said Sarr, a representative for AIESEC, a global youth network that provides leadership opportunities.
“I knew a girl with a vaginal infection who was told by a nurse: ‘You like sex too much, that is the problem.’ “
Sarr was one of several young Africans who discussed sexual and reproductive health education at a United Nations conference attended by ministers, health experts and civil society representatives from 24 countries in West and Central Africa.
The conference, which runs from Oct. 7 to Oct. 9 in Dakar, aims to accelerate the implementation of sexual and reproductive health education programs across the region, and make tackling HIV, teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence a priority.
It takes place just weeks after the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 15-year objectives to combat a range of issues such as poverty, climate change and gender inequality — including a pledge to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
West and Central Africa is one of the worst regions in the world in terms of sexual and reproductive health among young people, with teenage girls the most vulnerable, according to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The region has the highest pregnancy rate for girls aged 15-19, with 128 births per 1,000 girls. Four in 10 girls are married before they turn 18 and almost a fifth of girls under 14 have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), UNESCO said.
Less than a quarter of a young women and a third of young men have adequate knowledge of HIV prevention measures, and there is a lack of age-appropriate health education for most young people in the region, according to the U.N. body.
“The fact that teenagers cannot discuss sexual health means they get misguided and inaccurate information online,” said Romaric Ouitona, a 22-year-old who works as a young ambassador for a family planning organization in Benin.
Sexual health education programs in the region often fall short because they focus on the biological rather than social aspects of sex, and are aimed at older teenagers, who are often already sexually active, the conference heard.
Such education is often viewed with suspicion despite evidence showing it leads to youths having sex at a later age, a rise in condom use, and a lower number of sexual partners.
The Niger government last year withdrew a course on sexual and reproductive health from the school syllabus after Islamic organizations said it was contrary to the country’s values.
“Representatives from across the region are aware not only of the need to improve sexual education programs, but also to involve local associations, religious leaders and faith groups to overcome taboos and cultural barriers,” UNESCO representative Xavier Hospital said on the sidelines of the conference.