Seek the reproductive health truth? Ask the youth!

Large international conferences have a bad reputation for being high in cost and low in impact—the “value” of a conference may be hard to assess. However, I believe that the organizers of the 2016 International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) made a smart investment decision when they actively incorporated youth leaders from every corner of the globe into nearly every aspect of the conference.

Youth delegates made up approximately 300 of the 4,000 participants. Young people largely organized their own pre-conference program, moderated sessions, presented, and held auxiliary events. The positive impact they had on the conference may in fact set the tone for other similar international “meetings of the minds.”

The ICFP aims to chart a way forward to improve access to family planning—arguably the single most cost-effective way to achieve many of the newly established United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including eliminating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality.

ICFP’s youth pre-conference program

ICFP’s youth pre-conference program. Credit: International Youth Alliance on Family Planning

Those who talked with the youth delegates would agree:

They’re knowledgeable. They know their community and they know their family planning facts.

They’re resourceful; just ask them about the projects they’ve started in their own communities with little-to-no funding.

And, most importantly, they’re outspoken. When asked about family planning, they have no hesitation in expanding the conversation beyond contraception to include the desperate need for access to safe abortion. I believe this outspokenness is the most important quality young people bring to the conversation. Seasoned family planning advocates often fall silent when asked about abortion, not because they are anti-choice, but because they are restrained from speaking their minds by the potential political implications of doing so.

For instance, on the first day of the youth pre-conference program, the participants were asked to break into small working groups to identify barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services in their communities, and to identify solutions to those barriers. Without hesitation, one small group declared access to safe abortion as the top priority. They explained that “youth friendly services” are only friendly when they’re feeling unwell, not when they’re seeking family planning, and certainly not when they’re seeking safe abortion services.

One young woman from India explained that pregnant girls often take matters into their own hands. They are willing to take dangerous poisonous herbs or use other harmful methods in hopes that they will end their unwanted pregnancies. They believe their lives are at risk either way: If their parents find out they’re pregnant, life as they know it is over. They will be abandoned, shamed, or worse. Not to mention the high rate of maternal mortality that exists for young women. In fact, maternal mortality is one of the leading causes of death for 15-19-year-old girls globally. It’s second only to suicide, which some experts have suggested may be related to the stigma of adolescent pregnancy.

Small group session, youth pre-conference program

Small group session, youth pre-conference program. Credit: International Youth Alliance on Family Planning

Such powerful stories are a call to action. When it comes to youth needs, I strongly encourage the international family planning—and larger reproductive health and rights community—to share the podium with young people. They make up more than a quarter of the world’s population and an even greater proportion of the world’s sexually active population. So, let’s let them speak for themselves!

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