Universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is key to gender equality and sustainable development in Liberia
Adolescents and young people, particularly girls in Liberia, have the right to realize their full potential. They also hold the key to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and achieving Liberia’s development aspirations. Whether adolescent girls flourish with opportunities or languish in multi-dimensional poverty can decisively influence the direction of their countries—and the world’s–long-term development prospects. Because gender-based discrimination often starts at the earliest stages of life, equality and realization of the rights of the girl child and the adolescent girl are necessary to ensure that women have equal rights later in life.
The ability of women and girls to exercise their fundamental human rights, including their right to sexual and reproductive health, is a prerequisite for achieving Sustainable Development Goals.
This is why the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Government of Liberia, with funding from the Embassy of Sweden and working with several implementing and local partners, continue to expand their efforts to ensure that adolescents and young people have access to age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health information and services, especially in Southeastern Liberia, the region (Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Maryland, River Gee, and Sinoe) which until the start of the intervention in 2017, the 2013 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey indicated had an average teenage pregnancy rate of 49 percent as compared to the national rate of 31 percent (But a few years on, we are delighted that the “Universal Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health Programme” in Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Maryland, River Gee, and Sinoe counties has been impactful and contributed to nearly a 50 percent reduction in teenage pregnancy in these counties (according to the 2019-20 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey) which is also a significant contributing factor to the lowering of maternal and newborn deaths in the five counties.
During a recent visit to the five counties, we heard some life-changing testimonies of women and girls on how access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, including contraceptive products and services, has helped them to prevent unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections and diseases. Stories of how this programme has helped these young girls and boys have the right information, understand their rights, and gain the confidence to discuss these issues openly with peers, counsellors, health workers, teachers, and parents, and make informed choices.
Equally remarkable is the recognition by school authorities, community leaders, and parents and elders that the availability of sexual and reproductive health services for girls is contributing significantly to them reaching their full potential by ensuring they stay in school and exercising their bodily autonomy.
According to them, adolescents and young people’s access to age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health and rights information through Health Clubs and Curriculum-based Comprehensive Sexuality Education in schools is helping girls and boys to talk freely to their peers and parents about their sexuality, menstrual health, life skills, and aspirations. The same was expressed by the out-of-school adolescents receiving Comprehensive Sexuality Education from trained women-led Community-Based Organizations.
The mission was highly impressed with the strong level of ownership that was evident at several levels in the counties that made the change possible. The County Health Teams and the local authorities prioritized adolescents’ access to SRHR information and services and tracked progress; away from taboo about talking about sex, adolescents were confident and empowered with information about their sexual health and rights and the services available to them to realize their SRHR; community groups were active in reaching out of school girls and boys with comprehensive sexuality education; teachers were proud about the reported decline in the number of girls that dropped out of schools due to pregnancies. The local people owned the ongoing change and seemed more empowered to find ways to sustain the change.
Equal access to information and services for men and boys is essential for sustaining progress and transforming social norms. Some Progress was seen in efforts to involve men and boys, but more work is still needed to sustain the momentum.
In the partnership between the Government of Liberia, UNFPA, and Sweden, the achievement of sexual and reproductive health relies on the realization of sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR), which are based on the human rights of all individuals to have their bodily integrity, privacy, and personal autonomy respected; freely define their own sexuality; decide whether and when to be sexually active; choose their sexual partners; have safe and pleasurable sexual experiences; decide whether, when, and whom to marry; decide whether, when, and by what means to have a child or children, and how many children to have; have access over their lifetimes to the information, resources, services, and support necessary to achieve all the above, free from discrimination, coercion, exploitation, and violence.
We have an obligation to work together to advance the agenda for sustainable development in Liberia as well as globally. Women and girls who can make choices, have access to menstrual health and control their reproductive lives are better able to get quality education, find decent work, and make free and informed decisions in all spheres of life.
They tend to marry later and have smaller, healthier families. Their families and societies are better off financially. If they choose to have them, their children are healthier and better educated, helping break the spiral of poverty that traps many and triggers a cycle of prosperity that carries over into future generations.
Programmes that reach girls before they become mothers will reduce maternal and infant mortality and help end cycles of intergenerational poverty—one girl at a time.
We must make suitable investments in adolescent girls at the right time—before it’s too late.
March is Liberian Women’s month, as declared by His Excellency President George Manneh Weah. The Government of Liberia, UNFPA, and the Embassy of Sweden remain firmly committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure the rights of women and girls to sexual and reproductive health information and services are realized. Together, we can make a giant leap forward that saves lives, empowers adolescents and teenage girls, advances gender equality, and ensures a more prosperous and sustainable future for all Liberians.
Urban Sjöström is the Ambassador of Sweden to Liberia; Dr. Gorbee G. Logan is Assistant Minister for Curative Services, Ministry of Health, Republic of Liberia and Bidisha Pillai is UNFPA Liberia Resident Representative