Let’s Empower Youth for Sexual and Reproductive Rights

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post here. Reposted with permission.

By Jill Sheffield, Founder and President, Women Deliver

By Jill Sheffield, founder and President of Women Deliver, and Remmy Shawa, the International Sida Project Coordinator for the Sonke Gender Justice Network and one of the Women Deliver 100 Young Leaders

Today, nearly half the world’s population is under the age of 25. These 3 billion people — the largest ever generation of young people — are our future and our present. Each has an indispensable role to play in achieving international development goals, driving economic and social development, and shaping the course of history.

Yet around the world, young people are all too often unable to make critical choices that impact their futures. We hear it straight from the young people, particularly adolescent girls and young women we work with every day — they are unable to access the information and services they need to protect their sexual and reproductive health and plan their lives. Unmet need for contraception is greatest for women under the age of 20 and, in the world’s poorest countries, one in three women has a child before the age of 18.

For far too long, the issues of reproductive health and family planning for adolescents have been taboo, and in many places, the issues have been almost completely ignored. Consequently, pregnancy and childbirth-related complications remain the leading killer of teenage girls in the developing world. And countless more girls who drop out of school due to early pregnancies do not learn the skills they need to gain paid employment and contribute productively to their families, communities and nations.

These facts cannot be ignored, and what we urgently need now is more support from every sector of society. First, we need developing country governments and donors to prioritize and scale up youth sexual and reproductive health programs. This includes comprehensive sexuality education that teaches young people about their rights and their options, as well as programs to ensure that girls and young women have access to a range of contraceptive methods. We also need governments to pass supportive policies that impact reproductive health, like increasing the legal age of marriage in countries where child marriage is still prevalent.

Second, we need to reduce the stigma associated with youth sexuality. Even when girls and young women are informed about family planning and services are available, many do not access the services due to fear of reproach or criticism. To lower cultural and social barriers to care, we must engage community leaders — including political and religious leaders — as champions for youth sexual and reproductive health and rights. We also need to train health care workers to provide services to young people confidentially and without judgment.

Third, we need to encourage and empower young people to be their own advocates and agents for change. Young people everywhere have the right to the knowledge, tools and services they need to make informed decisions about their bodies and live full, healthy and productive lives. In many communities around the world, young women and men are working tirelessly — both individually and collectively — to demand access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

For too long, these young leaders have been on the sidelines of the global dialogue about health and development. We must bring them into the conversation. At the Women Deliver 2013 conference in May in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Women Deliver convened 100 Young Leaders, a program supported by Johnson & Johnson that aims to build the capacity of youth to advocate for issues around maternal and reproductive health. At the conference, these 100 Young Leaders spoke passionately about the challenges youth face and shared their strategies to fight for change. As one Young Leader said, “We sat at the table with decision makers and world leaders; we participated in different panels and sessions; we shared the results of our work; and we learned from our peers and fellow advocates. We were part of this conference and not just participants of a parallel event.” Giving youth a voice at international forums like these is an important first step forward.

And, finally, we must involve boys and men in the process. That’s why the 100 Young Leaders program includes almost 40 young men. And, that’s why we are excited about the amazing work that’s being done to increase male involvement in sexual and reproductive health and rights. For example, we’ve seen great success through programs like the Learning Centers Initiative in Zambia and Uganda, run by the Sonke Gender Justice Network and supported by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RSFU). These centers encourage boys and men to be equal partners in their relationships; access sexual and reproductive health services themselves; and promote their peers’ adoption of these behaviors.

By enacting supportive policies, bringing new voices into the conversation, and implementing effective, age and culturally-appropriate family planning programs, we can make a real and lasting impact on the lives of young people everywhere and help ignite a virtuous cycle of development.

This week, as we celebrate World Contraception Day on September 26, let’s all take up the charge — across generations — to make sure that young people have the information, services and support they need to become agents of change for girls and women around the world.