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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – “When UNFPA says, ‘put young people first’, we really mean it – youth are at the centre of everything we do,” said Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, Regional Director for East and Southern Africa. She was speaking to a 160-strong group of young people at the Youth Pre-Conference of the 8th Africa Conference of Sexual Health and Rights.

She commended the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, for her mission to the African continent and her willingness to listen to the challenges of young Africans and experience the vibrant spirit of change they embody. “Through you these voices will be carried to platforms that they don't usually have an opportunity to reach,” she said.

She acknowledged the young speakers who had shared intimate and profound experiences, and described the young people on the panel as ‘electric’. “As an elder, we sincerely believe that for Africa, young people are the best thing we have.”

The boldness with which the young panellists spoke created hope of a revolutionary movement for Africa, in which young people would not only be thought leaders but would also champion sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for those who are too often left behind, she said.

She encouraged the young people to carry their powerful voices to the main conference sessions. Her final call to action was for young people to unite as one behind the common SRHR agenda. “We believe that the power of the statement that you bring to the conference advances your rights in sexual and reproductive health for all,” she said.

1.8 billion strong SDG generation must lead on SRHR

UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said the discussion was held in a spirit of confronting the issues that need to be confronted by the youth generation, which is 1.8 billion strong. “You are the sustainable development generation – that’s you!” she said.

She stressed that what matters to young people, matters to UNFPA – especially the empowerment of women and girls. “We can’t have full leadership until women take their place at the table and don’t wait to be invited.”

Young people are the leaders in the 2030 era. “The time has come for young people to take their seats and be counted. When we say, #PutYoungPeopleFirst, don’t forget to put yourself first,” she said.

Young people are at the heart of UNFPA’s mandate, she said. As part of UNFPA’s commitment to ending HIV and AIDS, the Fund is to partner with UNAIDS to form a coalition, which will include young people.

The spirit of the Demographic Dividend is to unveil the true potential that Africa has to offer

At the closing plenary session of the youth pre-conference, UN Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, said it should be a priority for youth to be engaged at the national level. A conducive environment for youth participation needs to be created within organizations so that the voice of youth can be heard from within.

“We should make sure that young people are at the core of reforms. Youth should reflect as a pillar in delivering programmes in countries. We need to be asking ourselves how we are creating opportunities for young people within our organizations today. How do we partner with young people and have young people as implementation partners on the ground at national level?” she asked.