Member of Parliament Gamariel Mbonimana has called for a change in mind-set around youth sexual and reproductive health rights if the nation is committed to building a stronger future. Mbonimana was speaking at the opening ceremony of the 2-Day National Conference on Adolescents Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) held from October 19 to 20, 2021. The conference, which gathered over 150 participants, was hosted under the theme, “Amplifying Voices towards Access to ASRHR Services”. Organized by Health Development Initiative (HDI) in partnership with Plan International Rwanda and Norwegian Peoples Aid, the conference was aimed at raising awareness on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and creating a space for adolescents to voice their concerns in front of duty bearers. Among the participants were adolescents from four provinces and the City of Kigali, development partners, policy makers and stakeholders, including government institutions. An opportunity Mbonimana, who was representing the Network of Rwandan Parliamentarians on Population and Development (RPRPD), pointed out that this was an opportunity for the youth to start a conversation on how best they can be supported in the area of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. “If we really are committed to building a stronger future for our country, it is important that we change our mind-set and strive to respect the rights of our young people. This is an opportunity to share your ideas and where there are problems, we can work together to find solutions,” he said. He reminded that research indicates that teenage pregnancies are on the rise where at least 20,000 teenagers between 15 and 19 get pregnant every year. He pointed out that the reasons for these pregnancies vary and include domestic violence, poverty, lack of enough information, culture, laws and producing children beyond the couples’ abilities among others. Mbonimana reminded the participants that the conference was an opportunity to discuss these causes in detail and find long term solutions for them. Call on parents He also reminded religious and local leaders, teachers and parents of their responsibility to impart clear and easy to understand sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services. “Our young people who make up over 60 percent of the national population are looking at us adults for guidance. However, they are also expected to take good care of themselves and of each other. As young people, you should avoid unsafe sex and should strive to seek and take the advice of reproductive health professionals. This will help you to plan for the future without many distractions,” he said. Listen to adolescents On his part, the Executive Director of HDI, Dr. Aflodis Kagaba told the participants that his organisation has spent about 15 years trying to contribute to fixing the issue of teenage pregnancies. “Our wish is for every pregnancy in our country to be a wanted one and one that has been planned for. We do not wish to see any girl drop out of school because of pregnancy. There should be combined efforts to ensure that this girl goes back to school,” he said. He pointed out that teenage pregnancies are a challenge that requires a multisectoral approach and combined efforts. “To fix this, we need to hear from adolescents and teenagers. What are your expectations of us and what can we do to help you deal with this. This conference is an opportunity for you to tell us how we can work together to find solutions to this issue,” he said. Eliphaz Karamage, the Adolescent Health Officer at Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) pointed out that RBC is working on availing SRHR services in places that are more accessible to young people. “We should think of other ways, like availing services at youth centres and training service providers on how to deal with young people and how to encourage more to feel comfortable enough to seek them,” he said. Young people’s voices For 16 year old Bienvenue Mihigo, although the government has made some positive steps towards ensuring Sexual Reproductive Health Rights, some work still needs to be done to guarantee complete access. “We find some laws inconvenient for us young people when it comes to seeking Sexual Reproductive Health Rights information and services. For example, the requirement that a young person must be accompanied by a parent or guardian discourages some of us from seeking these services. How am I supposed to ask my parents to go with me to get a condom?” he wondered. Karongi’s Francoise Tuyizere reminded that there is still an information gap especially in rural areas. “There is still a challenge of accessing the right sexual and reproductive health information all over the country but it gets worse in rural areas. Saying that you are providing a service is not enough. There is a need to evaluate if the services are being given to the right people by the right people, at the right time and if there is impact,” she said. Dan Shema from King David School touched on the issue of stigma towards teenage girls who get pregnant. When a teenage girl gets pregnant, she is subjected to lots of stigma yet this unwanted pregnancy does not concern her alone. What plan is there to teach society about supporting teenagers that find themselves under such pressure, he wondered. This was the second National Conference on Adolescents Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). The first was held in 2019.