March 8 marks the 97th annual International Women’s Day, which not only commemorates the achievements of women around the world, but also seeks to inspire and empower them to achieve their full potential. While women today generally have more rights and opportunities than women of previous generations, they still face major challenges, particularly involving their sexual and reproductive health. A key means of improving this situation is to provide every young woman with the skills and information she needs to become a sexually healthy and responsible adult.

Research from the Guttmacher Institute’s Protecting the Next Generation project in Sub-Saharan Africa showed that young women are concerned about and want to protect themselves from both unplanned pregnancy and HIV, but that misinformation about sex and its consequences is common. Arming young women with medically accurate information can help them avoid these negative outcomes by preparing them for adulthood and their prime years for sexual activity. That’s why our study recommends that school-based comprehensive sex education programs be strengthened and that they target 12–14-year-olds, most of whom are in school and not yet sexually active.

Pretending that young women (and men) will not eventually become sexually active is counterproductive. Although only a small proportion of teens have had sex by age 15, sexual experience is common by the late teenage years. By their 20th birthday, roughly three in four young women and six in 10 young men in Sub-Saharan Africa have had intercourse. These proportions are remarkably similar to levels in the United States, where three in four teens have had sex by age 20.

Young women want reliable, honest health information, particularly from teachers, doctors and other medical professionals. Let’s honor them by helping to implement policies that support their goals and wishes.

For more information:

Listen to an interview with Dr. Akinrinola Bankole, director of international research, about the findings from the Protecting the Next Generation project in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Click here for “Young People Need Help in Preventing Pregnancy and HIV; How Will the World Respond?” and “Renewing a Focus on Prevention in U.S. Global AIDS Policy," articles from our public policy journal, the Guttmacher Policy Review.

Click here for “Protecting the Next Generation: Learning from Adolescents to Prevent HIV and Unintended Pregnancy,” a comprehensive report highlighting the policy and program recommendations based on findings from research in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda.