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Stella Paul – WNN Features

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A young man holds a placard showing the number of HIV positive people in the International Conference on Family Planning in Bali, Indonesia.

(WNN) Bali, INDONESIA, SOUTHEAST ASIA: Desmond Nji Atanga of Cameroon’s Bamenda was all of 14 years old when he first spoke to his friends about HIV, safe sex and condoms. It shocked some, but also delighted many to hear the young school-going boy talk of issues that most adults are shy to address. Slowly, the number of the delighted youths outnumbered the shocked and most people in the community came to accept him as a “unique person”.

“In Cameroon, 86.6 percent of young people don’t have access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services,” says Atanga, now 24 and a post graduate in Economics, citing data compiled by UNICEF.

“Girls, as young as 12, are getting pregnant. So, I talk to young girls, women and men between 10 and 24 years of age. I know they have the needs, but are too shy and hesitant to ask for it. They see me as someone who understands that need and has the courage, recalls Atanga who is in Bali to participate in the 4th International Conference on Family Planning.

Desmond Atanga is one of several young male leaders from Asia and Africa at the Bali conference, telling the stories of ministers, diplomats, policy influencers, researchers, health experts and journalists who are advocating sexual and reproductive health to youths in their respective countries.

In Northwest Cameroon, which is home to many ethnic groups of people, there are a number of sexual and reproductive health challenges such as practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Breast Ironing. Though these are ‘horrific’ cultural practices, they just cannot be wished or talked away quickly, says Atanga. Instead, there is an urgent need to intensify the generation of awareness, public education and sensitization of the community members. And this is not the job for one, but many. Atanga, therefore, is building a network of young people who are dedicated community workers, passionate about helping fellow youths learn and exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.

Like Atanga, Egypt’s Ahmed Taha Aboushady is also passionate about sexual and reproductive health services rights (SRHR), with a special focus on prevention of HIV/AIDS among young women and men. A medical student in Egypt’s Alexandria University, 21 year old Aboushady has been training youths on sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and family planning. He fights gender based violence and is a leader at the Anti-Sexual Harassment Task Force of Egypt.

Being a medical student has helped Aboushady to approach the complex sexual and reproductive health issues with relative ease, but it has also motivated him to study and understand the position of religion on the issues. There are a lot of misconceptions about Islam being against safe sex and family planning, and it is only by studying the religion better that one can remove such misconceptions, he says. “Islam is a religion of peace. So, it can never dictate anything that hinders its followers from living a healthy life? Take female genital mutilation for example: those who argue that FGM or ‘sunnat’ is allowed by Islam are distorting the truth about our religion,” says Aboushady.

“It is extremely important that we have such global male role models who can stand up and speak about women’s rights and needs to other men,” says Katja Iversen – CEO of Women Deliver, one of the world’s largest advocacy groups on the health and rights of women and girls. Engaging men into sexual and reproductive health, especially as a woman’s right to decide for herself is the need of the hour, says Iversen whose organization provides financial and technical support to young leaders like Atanga and Aboushady across the globe.

“It is important to have someone like Jim (Yong) Kim (the President) of the World Bank say why it is important to invest in girls and women. Similarly, in all other levels – country, regions, villages, families, it is important to have men talking to men on what happens when the women get a job, how the whole family gains – not from a threat point, but form a gain point. So when men talk to men regarding women’s needs, it helps have an honest discussion and build a support system for women,” says Iversen.

However, leadership also brings its own set of challenges to the men advocating for women’s rights, especially on contentious SRHR issues that include challenging societal norms. For example, in Cameroon, those who speak against FGM or Breast Ironing, are looked down upon and treated as bad people violating traditions. They are also at risk of being socially ostracized, says Atanga.

Both Atanga and Aboushady strongly demand that their governments introduce the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) – a formal sex education program designed to teach school students about sex and sexuality including health and hygiene.

“Young people need information and they are also getting that information. But where are they getting it from? Porn sites? Random web pages or Wikipedia? Is that the right kind of information? A school curriculum will help give them the correct information from the correct sources,” says Aboushady. He also stresses that such curricula are designed in a way that they “match the religious and cultural norms”.

For Desmond Atanga, a CSE would be a legal framework or a tool to change the entire country. “Youths could learn of sexual and reproductive issues right in school. It would give them education, sensitization, awareness and help them grow up as men who think and act in a responsible way,” he says.

Both the young leaders share a vision: one day, they would like to see their countries in a state where their fellow youths were able to get a condom whenever they wanted, to practice safe sex without the fear of contracting the HIV virus or catching a sexually transmitted disease. In Cameroon, where 60 percent of women do not have access to SRHR, Atanga waits for the day when young women can enjoy safe sex without the fear of getting pregnant.

“These young men – they are not the leaders of tomorrow, they are already the leaders of today,” says Katja Iversen about the duo and their other colleagues.

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For more information on this topic:

Infographic regarding family planning investment from Women Deliver (pdf)

Focus on 5: Women’s Health and the MDGs from Women Deliver (pdf)

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Stella Paul is an India-based environment and development journalist. She independently reports to many leading global media outlets including Thomson Reuters and Inter Press Services. As a journalist, she looks at climate change from a gender perspective and tells the stories of women and girls who live amidst extreme vulnerabilities: climate change, disaster, conflicts, climate-induced poverty and exploitation. She believes, fair, solution-oriented journalism can truly lead the way to social change.

Several of her stories have already brought direct impacts. In her most recent impact, Laxmi – a marginal woman farmer forced into slavery in Hyderabad city was set free after a group of readers took action, demanding her release.

For her journalism, Stella has won several awards and honors. These include the Asian Environmental Journalism Awards 2015, 2014 and 2013, All India Environmental Journalism Award 2014, National Media Award (India), the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitive Reporting (India) and over a dozen global press fellowships.

Besides being a journalist, Stella is also a media trainer and an advocate for gender equality. She is a board member of World Pulse which is one of the largest global networks of women bloggers, activists and community influencers.

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Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” WNN began in 2005 as a solo blogger’s project by WNN founder Lys Anzia. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including the United Nations and over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.

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