The Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future Plus (O³ PLUS) project had its inception in October 2021, building upon the success of the Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future (O3) programme, which was initiated in 2018 by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). While the O³ programme aimed to enhance sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes for adolescents and young people and stood as the largest comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programme in Africa, the O3 PLUS project had a specific focus on students in higher and tertiary education institutions (HTEIs) in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The transition to tertiary education represents a critical phase of adulthood where young people face unique changes and challenges. However, in a region with the highest rates of new HIV infections among young individuals, along with high rates of early and unintended pregnancies and gender-based violence, the O³ PLUS project's significance becomes paramount. A baseline study conducted by UNESCO across 24 institutions in Zambia and Zimbabwe highlighted the limited comprehensive knowledge and skills students possessed regarding their SRH and its outcomes. For instance, the rate of unintended pregnancies reached as high as 75% in Zambia and 63% in Zimbabwe, while nearly 40% of unmarried females and close to 25% of unmarried males in Zambia did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse. These statistics underscored the need to strengthen efforts in integrating CSE within HTEIs and promoting the uptake of SRH services to empower students in making informed decisions about their health and well-being.
A first-year female student from the University of Zimbabwe emphasized the importance of CSE and SRH for HTEI students, stating, "Coming to university, my parents told me that if I was not careful, I would die of HIV. Being here, I was under the impression that discussions on HIV issues and access to contraception services are a taboo. I am happy that there is now a platform to discuss and get guidance on SRH-related issues. I am now ready to be an O3 PLUS peer educator."
Initially launched in Zambia and Zimbabwe with the generous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the O³ PLUS project later expanded to Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda with additional support from France, Norway, and Sweden. The project's current aim is to reach over 500,000 students across the seven countries, striving to achieve the vision of empowering young people in HTEIs to be educated, healthy, resilient, and capable of reaching their full potential and contributing to the development of their community, country, and region.
In 2022, the project made significant progress in scaling up efforts to institutionalize CSE in all HTEIs and strengthen policies on students' welfare in the higher and tertiary education sector. Additionally, it encouraged the uptake of SRH services and continued its efforts to sensitize students and institutional staff about sexual and gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, to promote safe learning environments.
To build upon the achievements of the O³ PLUS project's first year of implementation, it will be crucial to sustain its momentum and ensure its positive impact on the health and well-being of HTEI students in the region, empowering them to realize their full potential.
Foreword for the O³ PLUS Annual report from Lidia Brito, PhD, UNESCO Regional Director and Representative
Read the O³ PLUS Annual report: