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MITCHA NEIGHBORHOOD, Lubango, Angola – “I have had doors closed in my face many times, but my desire to bring knowledge to young people and adolescents in order to avoid unwanted pregnancy has no end,” said Stela Varela, 28, an activist for the Youth Support Centre (CAJ) and a beneficiary of the Safeguard Young People (SYP) programme.

I have had doors closed in my face many times, but my desire to bring knowledge to young people and adolescents to avoid unwanted pregnancy has no end.

Ms. Varela applies the knowledge she has acquired in her seven years as an activist in her neighbourhood of Bairro da Mitcha, on the outskirts of the city of Lubango, in the province of Huíla. Helping her community – especially girls and young women – fills her with pride.

Young women contributing to a better world

The biggest difficulty she faces is a lack of willingness among women to discuss the challenges of unintended pregnancy. It is not uncommon for her to be rejected when approaching a community to raise awareness on the negative effects of teenage pregnancy, for instance, or for mothers to refuse to let their teenaged daughters attend her behaviour change lectures.

I'm not going to give up on the girls.

While a lack of information and education may be the root cause that limits parents from being able to talk openly with their teenaged children about sexual and reproductive health, Ms. Varela remains undeterred. “I'm not going to give up on the girls. Getting them to participate in my lectures is my biggest challenge,” she said.

Students participating in an SYP-sponsored training session. © UNFPA Angola

Challenging one of the world's highest teen pregnancy rates

Angola has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. With a contraceptive prevalence rate of 14 per cent and an unmet need for family planning among girls aged 15-19 of 43 per cent, teenage pregnancies continue to be taboo. This is the reason for the silence she experiences from the families she approaches in Mitcha's neighbourhoods.

Underlying factors for the high rate of teen pregnancies include limited knowledge of family planning, inadequate availability of commodities, limited access to skilled health workers, and insufficient household resources allocated to sexual and reprodutive health. Teen pregnancy increases the existing vulnerability of girls, as pregnancy is often an impediment to continuing education, exemplified by the low literacy rates of only 37 per cent for young women aged 15 to 24.

At a local school, Ms. Varela leads a youth empowerment session, sponsored and monitored by the Safeguard Young People programme, with girls aged between 11 and 23 years old. © UNFPA Angola

The country has 10 million girls and women of reproductive age and, although 75 per cent of girls attend primary school, this proportion drops to around 16 per cent at secondary education level, which coincides with the age of first menstruation. High fertility rates and high levels of teenage pregnancy increase the risk of maternal mortality.

In this context, behaviour change interventions are key to empowering young women and men to make better decisions to protect themselves. The SYP programme in Angola will reach 60,000 youths with training on sexual and reproductive health, trauma resilience and job skills, while providing an enabling environment by strengthening medical posts and training for health professionals.

Working with SYP

Through UNFPA's Safeguarding Young People (SYP) programme, sponsored by the Netherlands and implemented in partnership with the Government of Angola, Ms. Varela participates in youth empowerment sessions with girls aged between 11 and 23 years old at schools. The programme was designed to address the sexual and reproductive health needs and reproductive rights of adolescents and youth.

My biggest dream as an activist is to be able to see these girls I work with today have a better future.

SYP empowers adolescents and youth to lead healthy lives, protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion, early marriage, GBV and harmful practices. SYP promotes inclusion, gender equality norms and protective behaviours.

“My biggest dream as an activist is to be able to see these girls I work with today have a better future. [To see them] graduate, have a good academic background, get married and set up their homes,” says Ms. Varela.