MALE’, Maldives – When Azlifa was 11 years old, something troubling happened to her friend.
“She dropped out of school,” Azlifa remembers. “Her family was very upset. Everyone on the island – it was a very small community – would gossip about her, but nobody would mention the boyfriend.”
“The boyfriend,” Azlifa soon learned, was about to become the father of her friend’s baby. At the time, though, Azlifa knew nothing about sex or reproductive health. She had to Google the word ‘period’ when she first heard it.
In a country where sex out of wedlock is criminalized, Azlifa was not unlike many other girls her age.
Marriage remains a requirement for access to family planning services in the Maldives, and youth-friendly information on sexual and reproductive health are scarce.
But Azlifa was determined to change this.
“My friend’s story inspired me to empower other girls,” she told UNFPA. “I didn’t want any of my relatives to go through what she did.”
Now 26, Azlifa works as a reproductive health educator for the UNFPA-supported Society for Health Education (SHE) – the only organization in the Maldives providing sexual and reproductive health information and services to young people.
“When it comes to preventing unwanted pregnancies, information is key,” Azlifa said.
Worldwide, adolescents and youth lag behind when it comes to access to family planning and other sexual and reproductive health information and services. In developing countries alone, 20,000 girls under age 18 give birth every day, amounting to 7.3 million births a year.
Adolescent pregnancy puts girls at risk of dropping out of school and suffering diminished employment prospects. It also renders them vulnerable to poverty, exclusion and adverse health outcomes. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls worldwide.
What’s more, adolescent pregnancy is generally not the result of a deliberate choice – too many girls around the globe have little say over the decisions affecting their lives. Rather, adolescent pregnancy is often the consequence of lack of access to school, information or health care.
“My friend never would have become a teen mother if she had had access to sexual and reproductive health information,” explained Azlifa. “At SHE, we provide services such as family planning, STI and HIV prevention, prenatal care and comprehensive sexuality education.”
The next generation of leaders
Young people play a critical role in educating one another and fostering safe environments for discussions on topics otherwise deemed taboo, affirm world leaders gathering this week for the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning in Kigali, Rwanda. As the next generation of family planning champions, young people must be included in the decisions that most intimately affect them.
Azlifa knows this all too well. “I am very proud to create and provide safe-space sessions for young people, where they can come and talk about these issues.”
In collaboration with UNFPA, SHE creates safe spaces for young people to challenge taboos and explore sensitive issues around sex and relationships. At a time when inclusion issues in the Maldives persist – with high youth unemployment and low women’s workforce participation – safe spaces also empower women and girls by emphasizing rights-based solutions and gender equality.
In 2018 alone, UNFPA and SHE organized 6 new safe spaces for youth. The partnership has recently produced a mobile app, too, aimed at expanding the reach of sexual and reproductive health services to young people throughout the country.
Azlifa remains optimistic that these efforts will make a difference for the next generation.
“I married four years ago but only now decided to have my first child,” she said. “I hope that my daughter’s generation will have it easier when it comes to accessing reproductive health and rights.”
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