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2022 YouthConnekt Africa Summit

Closing remarks by Lydia Zigomo, UNFPA Regional Director, East and Southern Africa

Lydia Zigomo, UNFPA Regional Director, East and Southern Africa. © UNFPA Rwanda

It has been a great honour for me to be able to join you in person at this year’s YouthConnekt Africa Summit in Kigali. I was inspired by the words of our guest of honour, Madame Jeannette Kagame. I was particularly pleased to listen to such an inspirational panel focusing on a theme very close to my heart, which is access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and mental health – the case to invest in young people’s health.

I’d like to start by expressing my gratitude to the Government and people of Rwanda for hosting the 2022 YouthConnekt Africa Summit, under the leadership of the President of the Republic, H.E. Paul Kagame. I congratulate the co-organizers of the 2022 YouthConnekt Africa Summit, and commend the partnership between UNFPA, Imbuto Foundation, the YCA Hub and other stakeholders for organizing such an exciting and meaningful high-level panel.

I know that those of you in this room surely already agree on the importance of addressing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and mental health, as a pillar to any youth development programmes and strategies. Still, we must speak about it, so together we find the best ways to integrate this topic into other initiatives which, at first glance may seem unrelated and yet, have a direct correlation.

Today, we have listened to young people, experts, decision makers and leaders – sexual and reproductive health and rights and mental health are fundamental human rights, which we must promote, protect and enforce. They were recognized as human rights for the first time in 1994, during the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo, Egypt.

The ICPD Plan of Action stipulates clearly that all individuals, especially women and young people, must be provided with quality information to make decisions that concern their reproductive health; to have a safe and satisfying sex life; have the ability to reproduce; and must have the right to decide if, when, and whom to marry. The same ICPD Plan of Action clearly makes references to mental health and specifically, reproductive mental health.

There is a direct link between people’s ability to enjoy these rights and their level of socio-economic empowerment. Thus, sexual and reproductive health and rights, good mental health and women’s and youth empowerment are interdependent and essential for socio-economic progress, sustainable development, poverty eradication and gender equality.

In 2019, when stakeholders met at the Nairobi Summit to mark 25 years of that landmark ICPD, the kneading thread was “to accelerate the accomplishment of the unfinished business of the ICPD”. The Summit ended with voluntary commitments to accelerate the implementation of the forward-looking SRHR agenda to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and targets by 2030.

Some of the commitments specifically were focused on “investing in the education, employment opportunities, health, including family planning and sexual and reproductive health services, of adolescents and youth, especially girls, to harness the promises of the demographic dividend fully”, just as outlined in the four pillars of the African Union Roadmap on the Demographic Dividend.

The catalytic impact of SRHR on young girls’ ability to complete their studies and avail themselves of economic opportunities cannot be over-emphasized. When a young schoolgirl finds herself with a pregnancy that she did not plan for, her prospects for attaining her full potential are drastically reduced overnight. An unintended pregnancy is a nightmare for a young woman who just landed her dream job.

I am truly encouraged to see and hear young people take leadership, and share innovative initiatives to create jobs across different sectors – the creative industries with film, music, arts and culture, and technology. Access to sexual and reproductive health and mental health information and services is a shield and an enabler for those dreams.

As we learn of these innovative experiences and best practices, the question to ask ourselves is, how do we scale up for a more significant impact? That is where, in my view, like-minded institutions such as ILO, the World Bank, UNFPA, Imbuto Foundation and others come in.

In conclusion, I’ll say to you, the evidence is very clear: there has never been a better time for all of us to live up to our beliefs and promises. We must put our money and efforts where our interests lie – scaling up interventions in SRHR and mental health is a necessary bridge to get to the much-desired economic empowerment of millions of Africa’s young people. We cannot ignore the human natural process of growth, even as we search for the higher ideals outlined in the SDGs, and the Africa We Want of Agenda 2063.

The young people of Africa are ready. UNFPA is committed. I hope you are too!