Youth-Powered Healthcare Will Change the World
In 1994, 179 countries created a vision for the future that balanced sustainable development and individual well-being. Those who articulated this vision, called the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), made sure that young people were central to their agenda. That Programme of Action became the steering document for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
More than two decades later, young people are still at the center of the agenda — notably at the 2018 International Conference of Family Planning. We ask UNFPA’s Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem about the development community’s responsibility to young people and the potential to reap the rewards of the demographic dividend.
1. Impact magazine: Why did the leaders of what would become the modern contraceptive movement think to include youth more than 20 years ago?
Dr. Natalia Kanem: If we want to make good on our promise to leave no one behind, young people’s full engagement and participation are crucial. The time has come to move beyond dialogue and give young people space and support to drive the ICPD forward, so that all people, everywhere, gain the power to take charge of their lives. Human rights are by their very nature universal—they apply to everyone, including young people. Yet this population is often unable to exercise their rights, particularly when it comes to making choices about their bodies and for their lives.
2. IM: What happens if we don’t increase access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)?
NK: Protecting the SRHR of the world’s 1.8 billion young people is not only a moral imperative. It is also a path to shared prosperity and sustainable development.
We see the impact of failure to protect the health and rights of young people every day: 16 million girls aged 15–19 give birth each year in developing countries. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls in this age group worldwide. About one in three new HIV infections occur among youth aged 15–25.
3. IM: What are the long-term impacts of reaching young people with SRHR information and services?
NK: Evidence shows that investments in young people’s health and rights better equip them to take advantage of economic, educational and other opportunities that can lead to more secure futures.
4. IM: What does someone who doesn’t know the breadth of UNFPA’s work need to know?
NK: UNFPA is guided by the principles of gender equality and human rights embodied in the ICPD. Our activities in 155 countries and territories support access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, including contraception and screening and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. We support comprehensive sexuality education to help adolescents learn about their bodies, make healthy choices and think critically about gender and power dynamics in relationships. From 2014–2017, UNFPA programs enabled nearly 40 million adolescents to access SRH services.
5. IM: How would you advise other organizations to integrate young people into their work?
NK: Our programs are collaborative, not prescriptive. We give space for young people to speak, and we listen and respond to their ideas and needs. Our focus is on inclusion. We involve young people—including those who are differently-abled, marginalized or who have less opportunity to be heard—as equal partners from the onset of programming.
6. IM: As young people under the age of 24 make up 40 percent of the population, how important is adolescent and youth SRH to the success of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
NK: We know that young people are pivotal to the success of the SDGs to be achieved by 2030, and by extension UNFPA’s own ambitious goals that we aim to achieve within the same timeframe, namely ending the unmet need for contraception; ending preventable maternal deaths; and ending gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls.
These aims are underpinned by a commitment to ending invisibility through quality age- and gender-disaggregated population data. This will ensure that everyone is accounted for and reached. Young people stand to benefit from our actions to reach these goals and can play an important role in achieving them.
7. IM: What is your call-to-action for young people and adults working in the development space?
NK: Around the world, young people are waiting to claim their power and fulfill their potential. Let’s help them exercise their rights and realize their aspirations. Let’s invest in their health, well-being and leadership, and then let’s get out of their way and let them lead!
Banner image: © UNFPA