In the coming weeks, we'll be sharing pieces that prioritize youth voices and highlight programs that support them and their family planning goals. We hope you enjoy this series and learn from the advocates and participants who share their experiences.
Writing about our children, the famous poet Kahlil Gibran said:
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
If ever there were an argument for youth engagement in all aspects of their lives, Gibran found it. And yet, for decades, most family planning experts talked about services and programs for youth without their explicit involvement in crafting them. Eventually, young people were involved but sometimes on the periphery. That changed two years ago.
In October 2018, the Global Consensus on Meaningful Adolescent and Youth Engagement (MAYE) was launched by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH), the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP), and Family Planning 2020. For the first time, key principles were defined upon which MAYE should be grounded – ensuring that engagements and partnerships with young people are at a standard that allows them to be central in all matters that affect them.
More than 100 global, regional, national and local organizations signed on to the Consensus. They affirmed the following:
This October, it will have been two years since the Consensus was reached, shared, and agreed to. Some organizations have codified youth engagement. Women Deliver, for example, developed recommendations for a “youth-friendly organization” that includes designating 20% of Board seats for people under age 30. The International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) fully funded over 100 young people to attend the 2018 conference as equal participants and plans to do the same at the 2021 conference. At conferences, on phone calls, over coffee, and in boardrooms there have been far-reaching discussions about whether MAYE has had an actual impact on the lives of young people and adolescents.
The question remains: What has been the impact of MAYE? Are young people feeling it at the community level? And from the perspective of young people and adolescents, have they seen the family planning movement shift noticeably as a result of the Global Consensus Statement?
We asked a few young leaders in the family planning movement to share their views on youth and adolescent engagement. Here is what they are seeing.
Aditi Mukherji, policy engagement coordinator at The YP Foundation in New Delhi, is a queer feminist. She anchors a national policy working group of young leaders and activists to support their long-term engagement with health policies in India. She represents the Foundation as the Global and Regional Focal Point on SDG-5 (Gender Equality) in the UN Major Group for Children and Youth:
Patrick Mwesigye is the founder and team leader of Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum (UYAHF) and a 2019 winner of the 120 Under 40 award for young leaders in family planning. He is passionate about women’s empowerment, reproductive health and rights, and gender equality:
Laraib Abid is Founder and Executive Director of MASHAL (Making A Society Healthier and Lively) working on sexual and reproductive health and rights with a focus on family planning. Her advocacy work revolves around the mobile application Bridge The GAP (Giving Access to Planning) and includes open mic sessions, theater plays, seminars, innovative new tools development, and social media engagement with young people:
Marta Tsehay is program manager for Mandela Washington and a MILEAD fellow. She played an important role in the preparation of National Life Skill Manual for high school students in Ethiopia, and has been a Lecturer for Central and Addis Ababa Medical University Colleges:
Mwesigye: When engaged as equal partners, there is respect for the needs, contributions and voices of young people. Meaningful youth engagement must be reflected in policy and decision-making, planning and execution and budgets. Some partners are taking advantage of the vulnerability of young people to use them as tokens. At the global level, there is much talk of prioritizing young people in strategy documents but the actual implementation on the ground is a different story. The young people are on the sidelines or are only engaged with the CSO partners have a specific interest in meeting donor targets.
Mukherji: It is necessary that we in the family planning community get past the notion that young people are only thought of as a homogenized entity that can only provide inputs to issues which directly affect them and nothing more. In order to ensure that we are truly involving young people in programs and initiatives, it is necessary to see young people in all the identities they possess.
Abid: Here in Pakistan government departments have begun using mobile applications in their interventions with young people, and the government has put effort into highlighting family planning. There are campaigns and programs like IYAFP, 120 Under 40, Women Deliver and others that have proven to be effective platforms because young people are able to implement their solutions and have a voice at the table.
Tsehay: Increases in resource allocation [in Ethiopia] are creating youth meaningful participation. Although the expectation for meaningful youth participation is yet to be met, there is an improvement and young people are being considered as developmental partners. This has been manifested by the establishment of a youth advisory initiative to support the national policy initiatives. For the first time, the Ethiopian government appointed a 28 year old female Minister for the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth. This shows how young people are taken seriously and getting support and space from the government.
Mukherji: While more programs are being designed in conjunction with young people and are thus keeping their lived realities in mind, this cannot be singularly attributed to the Consensus Statement. A straight line from the Statement to the increase in the involvement of young people would dismiss the tireless work that many young people have done to convince stakeholders of their value.
Mwesigye: There is so much that the world needs to learn from models like the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program because it’s a perfect example of a proper youth mentorship. We need to design more mentorship programs to support senior youth to mentor junior youth. We also need to create young professional positions in our organizations where we can identify and take on these senior youth leaders to mentor them into professionals.
Abid: Young women always find it difficult to be heard because of stigma on women’s empowerment and feminism. However, while participation of all sexes is equally important, we must focus on women so that the ratio remains balanced and women get to the table to raise their voices and concerns. Women leaders have a different lens and add a perspective to discussions on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Mukherji: The engagement of young men is still very limited in the family planning arena, mostly engaging them in conversations about reproductive health. There is a large swath of issues which affect men and boys, particularly those affecting queer and trans youth, which are not brought to the mainstream of family planning programs. The intersection of masculinity and family planning needs to be explored further.
Tsehay: [To ensure that young people and adolescents are funneled into leadership positions in family planning,] the following measures are required:
While the Global Consensus on Meaningful Youth and Adolescent Engagement is important, it is only an aspirational statement. Clearly much remains to be done to ensure that is implemented at every level. Progress is rarely linear and often achieved in fits and starts. It is also clear from the young people interviewed here that there are varying perspectives on the impact the Consensus has had around the world. Has youth engagement made inroads in organizations at the regional, national, and global levels since 2018? Are youth leaders heard at the highest levels? What else remains to be done to accelerate progress? We would love to hear from you for a possible follow-up. Send your thoughts to Tamarabrams@verizon.net.