This guest blog post was written by Francis Oko Armah, a young leader in Ghana who advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights. In June 2016, Oko was awarded a $5,000 seed grant from Women Deliver to support his CSE4ALL Project for six months.
I am Francis Oko Armah, everyone calls me Oko. I come from Teshie, a town located along the coast of the Greater Accra Region of Ghana. My people mainly engage in fishing and other related activities which have remained the main source of income for years. I live with a great mix of amazing neighbors, lots of little children, ambitious young girls, and women as well as a bunch of great boys with so much energy! I enjoy helping others solve their problems, playing with the children in my community, and writing.
However, I live with special people in my community. These are pregnant young girls. Pregnant girls with brilliant ideas and dreams of their future who unfortunately seem lost as they become mothers at a very young age. Perhaps if they had access to adequate information and clearly understood the changes in their bodies as they grow into adulthood, the future might look brighter.
Recently I discovered that the high maternal mortality rates recorded nationally were often from the deaths recorded in communities like mine. This is not only because my people are generally conservative about their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) or maternal health related issues, but also because they do not trust the health system, for reasons such as the attitudes of health workers, cost of services, and cultural and traditional barriers. I do not mean to disparage my culture—we have beautiful cultures that prepare young girls and boys for adulthood and teach them about their SRHR. Yet the problems still exist.
In addition to these challenges, I realized that there is a huge knowledge gap about basic SRHR, and how it can contribute to improve a person’s quality of life. Unfortunately, it was a lesson that even I learned late, after I nearly lost my mom and a cousin, and discovered I had lost three other sisters due to maternal and childbirth-related complications. If my mother—and any of the other women in my community—had access to SRHR information from a younger age, perhaps she would have understood the risks and sought help.
If I have lost people because of the lack of SRHR and maternal health education, I strongly feel that nobody else should, and I can make that change! This recognition has driven my interest in promoting youth sexual and reproductive health in my community and beyond.
In 2013, I attended the International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and I was blessed to meet a passionate and vibrant group of young people with similar interests, and who understood the realities in my community. I joined the movement and the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP) was born.
It feels like a dream come true not only for me but for all young people who have been a part of the initial stages in forming IYAFP, how young people with support from inspiring leaders can lead a movement for the benefit of all and not only young people.
Since those early days, the experience has been good and IYAFP has made great strides. The efforts of the executive team, founding members, country coordinators, mentors, donors, and all other stakeholders have been impressive.
The Euro Monitor, in 2012, stated that half of the world’s population today—over 3.5 billion people—is under 30, and mostly living in developing countries. Reflecting on the journey of IYAFP, It evidently shows why young people are very vital and equal stakeholders in the efforts to improving health in their communities. Young people are the best to speak about their own issues, familiar with the dynamics of the issues as they exist in their communities, and are active drivers of social change. Our significance therefore shows that whether we are meaningfully engaged or not at all, the difference in results will be clear.
The CSE4ALL Project is targeted at providing relevant and timely sexual and reproductive health information to 1,000 young people between the ages of 10-24 by creating a platform to facilitate dialogue between policy makers, youth advocates, and service providers on specific SRHR policies and the critical role they play in addressing SRHR/maternal health challenges in Ghana. This project hopes to contribute to an increased awareness of maternal mortality and unplanned pregnancy. However, thanks to Women Deliver and their entire staff’s support, it is the beginning of a bigger dream to empower women, girls, young people, men, and all to make informed choices in safe health services to achieve the global goals.
It is 2016, and it is about time for all young people to know that they are more than just young people. You do not need to lead a delegation to be a leader, you only have to realize that your ideas and selfless efforts to make change already makes you a leader. But, you have to take action to make those dreams come to reality. Young people are leaders all around the world and never forget that you are one of them.