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As nations make efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), data is key in measuring where we are succeeding in meeting the needs and aspirations of our people, including their sexual and reproductive health needs, and where we need to improve.

Mindful of the importance of data in monitoring progress and trends in advancing the health and wellbeing of nations, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Ministers of Health developed a SADC Scorecard on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in 2018, to track progress on achieving the targets of the SADC SRHR strategy and the SDGs. The SADC Scorecard on SRHR tracks progress through clearly defined milestones that member states use to report every two years.

Tea 2021 SADC SRHR milestone scorecard indicates that the region continues to make tremendous strides to reduce new HIV infections and mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Most SADC member states have reduced the adolescent birth rate, and our young people across the region are benefiting from the provision of comprehensive sexuality education in schools.

Gomezgani Mapala, NMT Technician and medical assistant delivers family planning methods to a woman in Mzenga Health Centre, Nkhata Bay, Malawi. Mzenga Health Center is supported by The United Nations Population Fund. (Photo: ©UNFPA / Luis Tato)

These gains demonstrate that our collective investments and those of our development partners, in expanding HIV prevention and treatment, and in ensuring that young people have access to comprehensive sexuality education, are paying off.

We have also made progress in closing the gaps in the required number of healthcare workers available to serve our people, and this is despite Covid-19 dealing a devastating blow to the health workforce, with many frontline workers succumbing to the pandemic.

The scorecard acts as an early warning system. It shows that, while declining rates of new HIV infections are a cause for celebration, we need to redouble our prevention efforts. We cannot rest on our laurels while women in the SADC region continue to die of preventable causes, including as a result of unsafe abortions. Neither should we accept that many women in the region, including adolescents and young women, have unintended pregnancies as their need for family planning remains unmet.

Our region has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer, yet many countries fail to ensure that their adolescent girls are vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, the leading cause of cervical cancer, to protect their health in the future.

The scorecard is a reminder that member states should do more to strengthen data collection to allow for better monitoring and reporting. As a region, we continue to rely on large population-based surveys to provide data, but these are not conducted frequently enough for us to keep track of the progress being made. In critical areas such as gender-based violence and abortion, data is sparse which unfortunately undermines effective programming.

Similarly, the lack of data disaggregated by age and gender means that the region is unable to determine those being reached and those left behind. In particular, we need to expedite digitalization and reap its intended benefits as we progress towards digital health monitoring and information systems to improve efficiency and efficacy of health delivery.

sadc health
People queue to be weighed and attended to by a medical assistant in Mzenga Health Centre, supported by The United Nations Population Fund, (UNFPA), Nkhata Bay, Malawi on 26 October 2021. (Photo: ©UNFPA / Luis Tato)

As leaders in the health sector, we remain committed to working with member states to invest in the health and wellbeing of our people. At the recent Ministers of Health Meeting in Malawi, it was agreed that all member states supported by our development partners, should analyze their data in the scorecard and develop country roadmaps, to accelerate our combined efforts to achieve the SDG targets.

Further, we agreed that SADC should harmonize our monitoring and evaluation indicators, including age and gender disaggregation. This will allow us to monitor and compare progress across all member states, and to explore ways in which we can benefit from advances in digital technologies to strengthen health delivery.

Let us keep in mind that behind all the numbers are people — our mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, and children, who represent both present and future generations of our region. In our drive to achieve the targets of the SADC SRHR strategy and the SDGs, we must work harder and smarter. We must put our people at the center of everything we do so that they can live healthy and productive lives and contribute towards the overall economic health and wellbeing of the region. DM/MC

Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda is the Minister of Health for Malawi, Elias M Magosi is Executive Secretary of SADC, Beatrice Mutali is the Deputy Regional Director of UNFPA East and Southern Africa and Jonathan Gunthorp is Executive Director at SRHR Africa Trust.

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