Future reproductive freedom starts by giving youth a seat at the table

Students in a technical education program in Antioquia, Colombia. Youth must be a factor in all advocacy planning — from funding youth-led advocacy programs to increasing youth engagement with key target audiences. Photo by: Charlotte Kesl / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

When Ephraim Kisangala describes what he sees as a physician in Uganda, his voice is heavy with the weight of his work. He tells the story of his patient Jovia (not her real name) is a 14-year-old Ugandan girl who became pregnant after being raped by a family member. Jovia’s pelvis was too narrow and underdeveloped to deliver her baby, so Ephraim was forced to perform an emergency cesarean section. Jovia still hopes to pursue an education, though as a young, single mother it will not be easy.

Jovia’s story is not unique. The education of thousands of girls in Uganda has been derailed because they have experienced sexual violence, unintended pregnancy, or have suffered from an unsafe abortion. If more young people had access to contraception, safe abortions and post-abortion care, there would be more girls in school and university.

In developing countries, nearly 1 in every 5 girls becomes pregnant before her 18th birthday, putting her health severely at risk. In fact, complications due to pregnancy and birth is one of the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 globally.

“Research shows that when you include young people in decision-making and invest in his or her health, rights and wellbeing, everybody wins.”

— PAI President and CEO Suzanne Ehlers and Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen

Young people — those under 30 — constitute more than half of the world’s population; in some countries, young people make up as much as 80 percent. Their needs, their opportunities, and their choices not only define the world as we know it, but how we want it. To take full control of their lives, young people need to protect their health and decide for themselves if and when to have children. This certainly cannot be done if they do not know about contraception and the different methods available, or are deprived access to quality family planning counseling and services.

While some progress has been made in these areas, the pace has been far too slow, mainly due to lack of political will and insufficient funding. It is clear that there is an urgent need to accelerate the pace and secure political champions who are willing to speak out and act on reproductive health and rights.

Research shows that when you include young people in decision-making and invest in his or her health, rights and wellbeing, everybody wins. And the gains go beyond health. Nobody knows this better than the young people who are impacted by restrictive policies but who play a critical role in keeping their countries accountable for their promises.

By increasing youth engagement with key target audiences — including the private sector, civil society organizations, media and global institutions — we can provide opportunities for young people and ensure the inclusion of their voices. Women Deliver, for example, has provided hundreds of opportunities for young leaders to raise their voices and has assisted other organizations in including young people on their boards and task forces.

Youth must be a factor in all advocacy planning — from funding youth-led advocacy programs to reserving seats for youth at the table. As we begin to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals, PAI and Women Deliver will do our part to make sure that young people are meaningfully included in developing, implementing, and evaluating the policies and programs that impact their lives.

This work is already underway. In fact, this week, hundreds of young advocates from around the world will participate in the International Conference on Family Planning in Indonesia. They’ll come together again this May at the Women Deliver 2016 Conference in Copenhagen to create a strategy for meaningful youth engagement, for youth, by youth.

We all have a role to play and we need to listen, learn, and elevate the voices of young people. They are not only our leaders of tomorrow, they are leaders of today, deserving of direct participation in public policy. As they say: nothing about us, without us.

Follow the discussion taking place at the International Conference on Family Planning in Indonesia, where @DevexLeanAS and @richard_devex are on the ground bringing you updates and interviews. Join the conversation @devex using #ICFP2016.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Suzanne Ehlers

    Suzanne Ehlers is president and CEO of PAl. She has worked for the last 15 years to promote women's health, rights and empowerment across the globe, and has been honored one of the 40 under 40 International Development Leader by Devex and as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Suzanne is co-lead of the FP2020 Rights and Empowerment Working Group and has served on the U.S. government delegation to the U.N. Commission on Population and Development. She was also a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic.
  • Katja Iversen

    Katja Iversen is the president/CEO of Women Deliver. She is an internationally recognized expert on development, advocacy, and communications, has more than 25 years of experience working in NGOs, corporates, and United Nation agencies. Previously, she held the position as chief of strategic communication and public advocacy with UNICEF, a position she came to after almost six years of leading the team responsible for advocacy and communication on reproductive health with UNFPA.