|Sex, Culture, and Human Rights: An African Leader Breaks the Silence|
Josina Machel delivered this speech at the 4th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in February 2010. Machel is a gender activist and a social entrepreneur and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Women's Health Coalition. The speech is available to download in Word and PDF.
I was flabbergasted to note that less than 25 percent of the people here at the Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights are under the age of 30...at a conference where we are discussing African issues on a continent where at least 60 percent of the people are under 30 years old.
So my question is: where are the people that we’re talking about? Where
are the people we are making decisions about? The statistics I am about
to tell you have been repeated time and time again throughout the
Today’s youth is the largest generation of youth ever: 1.2 billion people worldwide are between the ages of 10 to 19. And another 1.2 billion are between the ages of 0 to 10.
Some 10 million of these young people are living with HIV, 6.2 million of which are African.
In fact, ten years ago I was in a conference here in Ethiopia, and we
were discussing gender, HIV, and young people. The issues we are
talking about today are the same ones we were talking about ten years
ago. And the things that we did not talk about ten years ago are still
not being discussed today. If we don’t talk about these underlying
issues, we will be in this same room ten years from now.
We can talk about gender, we can talk about HIV education, but when it
comes down to it, we tiptoe around the influences our cultures have on
our sexualities, in our bedrooms.
The second issue that we must address is access to sexual and
reproductive health services and information. Seventy-six percent of
people living with HIV and AIDS are women, and one-third of all these
women are between the ages of 15 and 24.
Something is not right. Somehow, the world is failing to teach young
people how to build equality in relations and protect themselves. We
are not taught how to value ourselves enough. With these statistics, we
might as well declare that you failed our generation.
And the third, the issue I began my speech with, and perhaps the most important, is the participation and rights of youth.
The fact that an estimated 20 million unsafe abortions occur every year,
illustrates how the three issues I mentioned above—culture, lack of
access to information and services, and the overarching issue of human
rights and youth participation—intersect and overlap.
Let’s imagine I am an unmarried fifteen year-old girl, and I come to you
and say that I’m pregnant. The first thing you will say is “you’re
having sex? And you’re unmarried? What are you doing?”
Those questions come from culture. Since I have no one to help me, I
try to find information about what I should do and what services I
should seek. But, I have no access. Even though abortion is legal in
almost all countries to save a woman's life and in three-fifths of
countries to protect her physical and mental health, safe abortion
services are often not provided by public health systems or are of poor
In this entire scenario, the issue of rights is overarching. From the
beginning of this story, what isn’t about human rights? My right of
choice, my right to have sex, my right to confidentiality, rights to
decision-making, my health and my future?
The points above and numerous studies have demonstrated that today’s
youth is growing- up in a world changed by AIDS but many still lack
comprehensive and correct knowledge about how to prevent HIV infection
and deal with it.
The 4th Conference on Sexual Health and Rights is an important venue for
strengthening the dialogue throughout Africa on the importance of
promoting and protecting sexual rights and health for young people.
The point to highlight here is the promotion of DIALOGUE. A dialogue
entails an interchange of information, facts and opinions on a
determined subject. The subject of sexuality and reproductive health is
still surrounded by taboos, misconceptions and cultural myths in our
continent. In spite of the various efforts in the past, young people in
particular are often overlooked and sidelined.
It is imperative for all of us to recognize that our strong cultural
identities and nuances as well as a significant level of ignorance on
how these work and influence our behavior are at the root of the
HIV-AIDS pandemic. For too long now, much too long, we have been hiding
in cultural excuses and “no-go comfort zones” as ways to avoid
scientific investigation which would provide empirical evidence for
appropriate and customized messages and interventions.
We have been designing strategies to address a modern-day disease with
methods that are contemporary, but are totally unsuitable and
incompatible with our way of being and living in the continent which is
still based on old traditions and practices.
This can be reversed by the adoption of continuous, honest, and rigorous
engagement between the various generations and societal groups on
issues such as gender inequality, sexual relationships, sex and
sexuality. It is about time that we engage the custodians of culture in
our communities to understand the intrinsic values underpinning gender
and sexual norms, practices and behaviours. The perpetuation of the fear
and reluctance to speak about, question and investigate the cultural
beliefs and influences on our sexuality is plain and simply killing us.
We all here in this room come from a culture where traditionally,
children and young people are seen as both the present and the future,
so I have always believed it is our responsibility as adults to give
children futures worth having. In the past years I have been shocked and
angered to see how shamefully we have failed in this responsibility.
THIS is the time to entrust us young people with the right to
participate and redefine our vision and perspective, to design and equip
them with plans and the tools, to build a healthy and egalitarian
Through my work and as a Board Member for the International Women’s
Health Coalition, I’ve had the privilege to meet outstanding young
advocates from nearly every region of Africa. Some of them are here to
make our voices heard and develop a strategy for moving our agenda
forward in our countries and our continent.
I’d like to request that the young people here today to please stand and repeat after me:
No more decisions are made ABOUT ME WITHOUT ME…