Give us information and supplies, and trust us with our own bodies, says international youth delegation.
From as far away as Bangladesh, China, Argentina, and Senegal young people recently trekked to Seattle for a conference that, on the face of it, sounds somewhat dry: The annual international gathering of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, a 400-member strong alliance of reproductive health supplies agencies. Amidst staff from nonprofits and governmental agencies, they sat through days of presentations about regulatory processes, supply chains, and stockouts, and “the last mile” problem—the question of how to get health supplies like birth control pills, injections and state-of-the-art contraceptive implants to families who live in scattered communities at the ends of dirt roads and footpaths.
Why did they come?
Because they had something to say. Emerging adults in their teens and twenties are more at risk than anyone when sexual health information and birth control are in short supply, but they rarely get asked for their insights. At the Seattle meeting, delegates said that their peers back home want to be trusted with their own bodies, but they need youth-friendly services that empower them to take care of themselves. Beyond that, they want to play a role in shaping services aimed at them. Who knows better than a young person how to create services and supplies that are youth-friendly?
Around the world, but especially in developing countries, emerging adults tend to get left out of conversations about reproductive health. Since many are students or just launching careers, they rarely wield substantial administrative, financial or political power. Also, traditional societies and religions often stigmatize youth sexuality or forbid sex outside of marriage, so the sex lives of young people may take the form of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When responsible, future-oriented young people do seek information or services despite the stigma, they face the humiliating risk of being scolded or turned away.
But these very same factors make sexual health services particularly important for young people. Mistimed and unwanted pregnancy can bring education to a screeching halt, or trigger a forced marriage, or derail a career that is just getting started. When young people lose the chance to build resources before pregnancy—whether those resources are social, emotional, physical, educational or financial—they pay a price, and so do their children, who often start life with the odds stacked against them.
Génesis Luigi, a student at the Central University of Venezuela, says that it doesn’t have to be that way, especially if public health and global health administrators stop underestimating young people. “Youth is not afraid to manage technical language, to be part of negotiations, discussions or to work in the field. We are already doing it with youth-led organizations.” Treat us as partners, she urges, recognize us as a source of untapped power.
If Luigi’s words fail to convince, her track record should. Frustrated that sex ed in her high school was incomplete and biased, Luigi started a video blog called “La Pastilla” that covers topics her teacher omitted. As a college student, she now serves as the Youth Network Coordinator for International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Her peers at the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition meeting arrived with their own impressive array of accomplishments:
· Determined to make a difference, Nigerian Amadi Jennifer Chinoye got a degree in health education and has since advised an alphabet soup of national and international organizations. Among their objectives: increase access to IUDs and implants; ensure that women giving birth have “clean birth kits” and trained assistants; and identify best practices for community-based sexual and reproductive health care.
· Stephan Nna of Senegal began advocating for reproductive rights and services as a teenager, and now, at age 24, has a long resume of engagement. In 2014 he led a communications team at a U.N. summit of youth leaders.
· Annick Thiombiano, from Burkina Faso, helps to monitor her country’s progress toward the Millennium Development Goals laid out by the United Nations while also working to help women attain financial independence. In 2014, she was named a Voice of Africa’s Future Champion.
· While studying for a doctorate in sociology, Randrianandrasana Aurelien Raphael, from Madagascar, coaches youth peer educators on how to be more effective, and oversees their work.
· In his home country of Bangladesh, S. M. Shaikat started a network of youth advocates opposing child marriage and dowry. It is now 2000 strong.
The list goes on.
Young people like these have a seat at the table only if those already seated recognize their potential and invite them in. Fortunately, foundation staff and other advocates for global health increasingly are recognizing that it’s foolish to leave them out.
Nna says that he dreams of a future in which young people have equal rights and opportunities, and a voice in public decisions that affect them. “Nothing about us without us!” he chants. Others pick up the refrain. If Nna and Luigi and their peers are the face of the future, the “father-knows-best/doctor-knows-best” attitude of past generations may be headed for the dustbin of history. And good riddance.