‘Under the Open Sky:’ Two Activists Aim to Reshape Nepal’s Youth Reproductive Health Landscape

At first glance, Sajja Singh and Riju Dhakal could be fellow students in your college Zoom seminar. You may not immediately suspect that they lead a nationwide youth empowerment and advocacy organization in Nepal, or that one of them is the first female president of the organization. 

Singh, the former Vice President of YUWA, and Dhakal, the current President, met with Population Connection members and supporters on Tuesday to talk about the reproductive health landscape in Nepal and YUWA’s upcoming goals. YUWA—founded in 2009—is a youth-run non-profit organization that advocates for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, or SRHR, and active citizenship in Nepal. 

“Young people at the forefront can actually work for the betterment of society and community, and in Nepal, it is important that [they] are made the medium of changes,” Dhakal said. “We encourage young people to initiate solutions to their community problems.”

YUWA aims to destigmatize SRHR and educate youth populations about topics such as contraception, sexual violence, and menstruation. It recently held an article writing competition entitled “Dissecting Rape” for its 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, where writers unpacked topics such as zero tolerance, consent in relationships, and the role of youth in the plan to end gender-based violence.

As with other countries in South Asia, Nepal has a history of struggle with adolescent health issues. While the country implemented a plan in 2016 to create a conducive environment for adolescents to access reproductive health resources in all public health facilities, there remains a 35 percent unmet need for family planning as of 2016. The unmet need is higher among married adolescents than among all married women of reproductive age.

Furthermore, stigmatization of unmarried adolescent sexuality and gender norms make it difficult for providers to implement sexual and reproductive health programs in communities. Adolescents must often navigate isolation, confidentiality issues, rumors, and shaming from family members and communities.

“A lot of teachers are still hesitant about teaching sexuality education,” Singh said. “Young people also lack information and have a hard time accessing contraceptive devices which puts them at an increased risk for unwanted pregnancy. When they reach the abortion sites they are questioned a lot and often denied services.”

Dhakal added that there are many accessibility related problems that complicate sexual education in Nepal. While important youth-led discussions are growing in rural areas, there remain systemic barriers to advanced education and services that urban areas traditionally enjoy.

The organization not only has its domestic hurdles, but faced a limited ability to advocate for SRHR services in the face of the Global Gag Rule, reimposed and expanded under Donald Trump. According to Singh, about 150 safe abortion centers in Nepal have shut down due to the lack of funding. Under the policy, any foreign health organization receiving  U.S. aid had to agree not to do any abortion-related work, including providing procedures, counseling on the option, or referring patients to other providers, even if they did so with their own, non-U.S. money.

Nevertheless, the two advocates see a path of change ahead. Singh hopes the continuation of discussion and collaboration will create the space to inspire empowerment at a societal level and involvement in more spaces, particularly now that the Global Gag rule has been repealed by President Biden. YUWA has been able to expand its reach during the COVID-19 pandemic because it can digitally support more young people throughout Nepal than beforehand, according to Dhakal.

Despite increased international partnerships and Zoom meetings in pajamas, there are some aspects of  YUWA that can’t quite be replicated. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, members would sit outside in the evening together and talk about difficult topics. The tradition was aptly named “Under the Open Sky.”

“We try to break that barrier and come to an open sky and discuss these topics and how we can move forward and ahead and make it work better and break these taboos,” Singh said.

I like to think that we can all take something from this tradition—finding open skies of our own, breaking down barriers that remain, together.

Find the full presentation here.

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