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UN Urges African Nations to Protect Sexual Rights

FILE - A volunteer from Simelela, an organization dealing with sexual violence, uses a doll to teach children about inappropriate touching and sexual abuse, at a pre-school in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township.
African countries have been called upon to accept "sexual rights" as an integral and inalienable part of basic human rights and remove all barriers preventing women and girls from claiming such rights.

The youth sing songs during the Sixth Africa Conference on Sexual Health in Cameroon to draw the attention of the continent's leaders to the need to eliminate violence against women, girls and boys.

Among them is 18-year-old University of Yaounde 1 student Mbassi Antoinette who says she was sexually harassed by her lecturer.

She said it started with the lecturer promising to help her. After that he started harassing me and asking for sex, intimidatingly saying that if I refuse, he will make sure that he gives me a fail mark in my exam, she said.

Gender-based violence, rape and sexual harassment appear to be increasing in many parts of Africa. Professor Ahmadou Bouba told VOA a study he conducted shows alarming violence in Cameroon as one of the main hindrances to quality education in Africa.

He said cases of sexual harassment have increased in universities, as male lectures harass female students and in some cases, female lecturers harass male students.

The U.N. Population Fund said Africa has more people under age 20 than any place in the world, and the continent's population is set to double to two billion by 2050.

The youth's share of the population makes them integral to the continent's economic take-off. But Christine Boutegwa from Ghana said this is compromised by inadequate laws when it comes to sexual and reproductive issues. "They do not see adolescents as sexual beings. The policies that are there are not right for boys and girls," she explained.

Uganda conference representative Sarah Mokossa said there is a culture of silence around sex and sexuality on the continent. "We still practice child marriage, we still practice female genital mutilation, we still view it as acceptable that young women and young men should not be educated on their sexual and reproductive health and rights even though we know that they are sexually active and usually that sexual activity is not by choice," she stated. "It is one in which they are forced by older men in the case of young girls."

A similar situation in Zimbabwe is enabled by the absence of strong legislation to punish those who carry out abuses, said Ndana Tawamba who represented the country at the conference. "The justice systems in the countries we are coming from are pretty much lacking behind in terms of what it is that they can do in terms of seeing to it that those girls that are being married at early ages get the kind of recourse that they deserve," she said. "Getting the justice that they deserve after being raped particularly."

The conference ended with a call from U.N. Population Fund Deputy Director Kate Gilmore for African leaders to end all barriers that prevent women and girls from attaining their sexual and reproductive health capacities.

"We need every leader in Africa to insist that human rights for, with and by Africa be at the heart of the next development agenda, which the international community will define this year," she stated. "We have to reprioritize health and education as the magic formula for realizing young people's potential."

About 550 people representing 55 countries took part last week in the Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights.