When Cecilia Garcia Ruiz saw that national policies in Mexico weren’t addressing the needs of young people like her, she took her dissatisfaction and turned it into action.
Since 2006, she has been an advocate for young people, especially young women, through her group Espolea, a youth-led nonprofit based in Mexico City that aims to empower young people to become agents of change to promote respect for human rights in the country.
The group focuses on gender issues, including sexual and reproductive rights, as well as drug policy reforms and HIV and AIDS policy in the country. Now the group is addressing the issue of teenage pregnancy, which Ruiz sees as a blind spot in the government’s family planning policy. Ruiz and her group just won a $5,000 grant from Women Deliver for an initiative to help adolescent mothers in Mexico to speak out about their reproductive health needs and advocate for family planning policy changes. Ruiz was selected from a group of outstanding young advocates under the age of 30, known as the Women Deliver 100 Young Leaders.
Devex spoke with her about her inspiration, her challenges and her advice for other young leaders who are advocating for policy changes in their own countries. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
What inspired you to take on this advocacy role and to start Espolea?
When we started this organization, we were in college and we were eager to do something. You have this special energy, you know, and we were very dynamic. And we realized it was important to create spaces where people can express ideas, share their ideas and participate in the political field. We were having federal elections in Mexico at that time, so we had this idea that political participation had to be a key element of our work.
Then in 2008, the International AIDS Conference took place here, so that was an opportunity to meet other organizations from around the world who gave us an overview of what was going on in the international arena. And as young people, we understood that the youth policies in Mexico that were addressing sexual health and reproductive rights, drug use and abuse, HIV prevention, were not necessarily effective or efficient. So we thought that it was important include more young people in these efforts and to participate at different levels.
What are the particular challenges that you see facing young people, and especially young women, in Mexico?
Well, we've had years of conservative governments that basically represented a major setback in the reproductive health and rights field. The family planning policies that started in the ‘80s and ‘90s to reduce the rate of teen pregnancies and youth pregnancies worked, but after that everything stopped.
There were no new efforts to continue or improve or to move this forward to understand the new challenges of young people, and especially young women, in this regard. So I would say that’s one of the major challenges that your women face, along with the increased violence in the country. These are two structural, major problems that we haven't been able to address effectively that are definitely hindering young women's ability to tackle these problems of teen pregnancies and others.
What advice would you give other young leaders and youth advocates who want to address problems they see in their own communities?
First of all, every idea counts. When a young leader or a young person comes up with something, it's because they have identified that that is something that is needed in their communities, in their countries. Just to understand the value of that idea is important, because throughout the process of becoming a young leader, you will find that there are other young people sharing your idea and you will realize that it was valuable idea.
The second piece of advice would be that you have to raise collective awareness. It's important that you understand what you have identified, what problem you are trying to solve. But after that, you have to communicate with other people, because a single person can't change the world. An idea can, certainly, but you need other hands, other eyes, other voices to make it a stronger initiative.
And even if you’re not successful in your first attempt to solve a problem, don't feel disappointed. You are going to fail, probably several times, but that does not mean that your idea is not good, or that the problem you have identified is not a problem. It's just because this is a learning process, and becoming a spokesperson doesn't happen from one day to another. You need a lot of patience, passion and a lot of commitment to carry out this work. But it's worth it.
She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.