A personal story reflecting on how Ghana must realize the rights and dreams of its youth for economic acceleration.
Six years ago, I was an average girl growing up in the poor urban community of Labadi, in southern Ghana. There was a lot of talk. It was normal to hear of a 13 year old girl who just attempted an abortion; or a 14 year old friend who just had a baby; or that my 16 year old male cousin slapped his girlfriend of 14 because she refused to wash his clothes. It didn’t seem to matter that they were unmarried and fall below the legal age of marriage. This is the community in which I have lived my entire life. This was my “normal”. Many classmates dropped out of school due to teenage pregnancy. Unsafe abortions claimed the lives of others.
These everyday events seemed so routine. In fact, they became the way of life. Perhaps my story wouldn’t have been any different from those countless others but for my parents strictness as well as my own determination to finish school to the highest level. But I was still vulnerable. My mindset still thought of this environment as “normal”. Then I joined a different group of young people from an organization called Curious Minds. They opened my eyes to the ultimate consequences of teenage pregnancies, unwanted and unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and sexual violence. There was another reality. I realized that every unintended pregnancy especially by a teen added to the population number, it had a baby that perhaps government had not planned for.
Where I come from it’s easier to blame the girl for getting pregnant than ask if she knows how to protect herself. It’s easier to make the girl the subject of sexual violence than engage in mutual respectful and reciprocal relations. It took me a couple of years of training and peer learning to understand the full range of human rights, specifically girls and women’s rights, to allow me to fully understand and differentiate between those utterly wrong “norms”. It is unacceptable that girls younger than me were, and continue to be, vulnerable to the pressures of boys and men and society in general. What made the difference to me was the right information, empowerment and access to sexual health and reproductive rights and services. If this kind of atmosphere was more prevalent in Ghana, perhaps many of my friends and others wouldn’t be in the difficult situations they find themselves today.
This is my story and this is the hard truth I live with. But it doesn’t look gloomy as it sounds. There is certainly a way out.
Now meet Aisha, at 23 years old, Aisha (pseudo-name) has already had 4 children. None of them are twins nor are all four quadruplets. Estimates in the 1990s had projected Ghana’s population to double by the early 2020s in relation to the 1990 population (14.63 million). Such rates of birth like that of Aisha is largely a contributory factor to this growth. Presently our population by extrapolation is around 29 million). Today Aisha has to struggle to make ends meet and cater for her family. Unfortunately her boyfriend turned husband is also not gainfully employed to support the family. If nothing is done, the two daughters of Aisha at a very early age may also start indulging in sexual activities in their bid to support the family. The cycle of poverty might just continue.
Aisha tells me she wishes to use family planning, but she is afraid she might grow fat and she also doesn’t have the money to afford it.
I believe Aisha’s story would have been different if she had access to information on her SRH. She could have made some right decisions along the way.
With population growth increasing due to perhaps the case of Aisha and that of many girls who end up with unplanned pregnancies, there are only two ways out; Making use of the numbers or suffering the consequences of the numbers.
Ghana stands on the cusp of reaping a hugely positive demographic dividend. With young people currently forming a large chunk of its population, about a third of the entire population is between the ages of 15-35 years.
It is the accelerated economic growth that may result from a decline in a country’s birth and death rates and the subsequent change in the age structure of the population. Ghana stands the chance to benefit from this demographic dividend over the next 20 to 30 years. </strong>
But for that to happen we need to redouble efforts to accelerate the decline in fertility and lower mortality levels through revitalizing health and modern contraception programmes. Access to youth friendly health services and comprehensive and evidence-based information on sexual and reproductive health is paramount to achieving this. Steps towards realizing a demographic dividend can happen if the rights of young people are fully protected and fulfilled. This is done with accurate, timely information, provided in a sensitive manner in the area of comprehensive sexuality education and health services for sexual and reproductive well-being and lifelong health. This contributes to a productive and competitive labour force and lays the groundwork for a demographic dividend.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the key issues that must be addressed for Ghana to reap its demographic dividends are child health (including neonatal care), nutrition, care of the elderly population and modern contraception use. Although many young people in Ghana have knowledge about at least one form of modern contraception, the main challenge has been accessibility. Young people often do not have access to various contraceptive services due to distance from local health services, attitude of health care provider or financial issues. This has led to problems now associated with the young population in Ghana, such as high cases of teenage pregnancy and unsafe abortion. Undoubtedly Ghana requires investments in job creation, sexual and reproductive health services, more modern contraceptive methods, and education and skill development – especially for young people and women. By doing so a more sustainable economic future can be achieved. Government must do more by committing resources towards the sectors that can achieve this attainable goal by putting in place appropriate policies, strategies, programs and projects. It all helps build an enabling environment where young girls and women are empowered to take charge of the choices they make.
Certainly the walk towards achieving agenda 2030, which seeks to leave no one behind will be a reality if all these are not done. In fifteen years’ time when we will sit to evaluate and access how far we have come in SDGs, it will the young people of 15 to 25 years today who will form majority of the working force. Thus there is no doubt that the right investment be made in all areas. Sexual and reproductive health rights and services including family planning is key, gender equality, and education are all central to building the sustainable societies that we look forward to.
In addition, Ghana cannot and will not achieve its sustainable development agenda if it does not empower women and girls by helping them achieve their full rights and aspirations. It will move the country a step closer to fully realizing dual outcomes of its demographic dividend – namely the realization of the rights and dreams of its youth and a better economic future for all