'Nothing about us without us:' Youth advocates on reproductive health rights

VANCOUVER, Canada – Pregnancy and childbirth complications related to teen pregnancy are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls between 15-19 years old globally.

There are over 5 million young people living with HIV yet early HIV diagnosis and link to proper treatment remains low among the youth. Sex education in school remains contested even if studies show that sex education teaches kids to be safer and smarter about their sexual decisions.

There are an estimated close to 2 billion young people (between the ages of 10-24) in the world today, representing about a quarter of the world’s population.

Young people are in the eye of the storm of various sexual reproductive health issues and yet their needs and the context they move in are often overlooked when it comes to drafting and implementing health policies that regulate access to reproductive health information and services.

Nothing about us without us

Youth delegates at the recently held Women Deliver Conference, the world’s largest conference on reproductive health rights and gender equality, called for more than the usual lip service when it comes to their involvement in planning public health policy that will directly impact them.

“Nothing about us without us. We want to be involved. We want to decide,” said Natasha Wang Mwansa, an 18-year-old Women Deliver Youth Delegate from Zambia.

“Nothing About Us Without Us” is also the title of a new research initiative focused on training young people to take an active role in shaping sexual reproductive health rights policies as researchers, advocates and advisors. The research was launched at the Women Deliver Conference and will be piloted in 3 countries: Malawi, Rwanda and India.

“If we want youth policies and programs to work, and get a bang for our investment buck, we need to involve youth all the way. They are the experts on their own lives, and know what they need. They are the game-changers and the best spokespersons for their sexual and reproductive health and rights,” said Katja Iversen, President and CEO of Women Deliver in a statement.

Filipino youth delegates at Women Deliver

Anthony Lopez, 27 years old
Founder of Capiz youth for sexual and reproductive health rights (Y-CAP)

Anthony Lopez, Jona Claire Turalde and Neil Lumibao were the 3 Filipino young leaders at Women Deliver to represent their own advocacies and represent the hopes and aspirations of the youth who make up about 20% of the country’s population.

Anthony Lopez is used to his friends – and even friends of his friends – going to him to answering their sex related questions. Sometimes he’s also asked for more than advice.

A friend of Lopez’s sister was afraid that she might be pregnant. She didn’t know what to do. Lopez helped by providing her with pregnancy tests and later, guidance on how to tell her parents and her partner.

Another time, a teacher came to him because one student had become despondent and withdrawn in class. After talking to her, they discovered that the student was being sexually abused by her stepfather. Neither her mother nor her grandmother believed her when she told them about the abuse. Lopez helped the student access counseling with the help of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). She was diagnosed and treated for clinical depression.

Experiences like this convinced Lopez that young people need more sex education and services. “It’s not just about having sex. It’s about mental health and the total well-being of a person.”

In 2016, Women Deliver awarded Lopez a  $5,000 grant to launch Y-CAP, a peer education program based in Lopez’s hometown of Roxas City, Capiz. The group has trained 25 young people to become peer counsellors on HIV, sexual reproductive health and LGBTQ+ rights.

YCAP is a member organization of Y-PEER Pilipinas, a network trying to mainstream youth sexual health rights through a peer to peer education approach.

Watch this video to learn about Lopez’s other passions: Indonesian love songs and Aranchini, an Italian dish that he says he rocks cooking.

Jona Claire Turalde, 21 years old
Champion, SheDecides Movement

The words “reproductive health” became personal for Jona Claire Turalde when she met a 17-year-old girl with 3 children and the body frame of a 13-year-old.

The teen mom was the same age as Turalde who, at the time, was working as a volunteer for a grassroots NGO. The teen mom’s aunt was encouraging her to get contraceptive implants so she could better plan and space her pregnancies, but she was wary about the side effects.

It was only when Turalde talked to the teen mom about birth control options and the benefits that she agreed to have implants as her contraceptive method.

The experience stayed with Turalde. “When it comes to a taboo subject like sex and reproductive health, it is so important to hear for young people to hear from other young people.“

But without proper education, this could just be the blind leading the blind.

“There should be a group of young people trained and empowered to talk about youth rights to sexual health information and services like birth control. Young people should be at the forefront of it,” said Turalde.

“It’s hard to talk about these things. There’s a lot of judgement and backlash. You’re a teenager to think about this is already a taboo,” she added.

Turalde is one of the champions of She Decides, a global movement that advocates for every woman’s right to make decisions about her sexual reproductive health rights.

Watch this video to learn more about the (not so) secret sauce that Turalde puts on everything she eats and her fondness for anything avocado.

Neil Lomibao, 25 years old

Neil Lomibao was only 15 when he first got involved in reproductive health advocacy as the youngest panelist on the advisory board of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

“My Mom told me that being chosen to be part of these initiatives come with responsibilities and expectations that I have to live up to,” said Lomibao.

More than 10 years later, Lomibao remains a voice for the youth as the chairperson of the UNFPA Youth Advisory Board.

Later this year, Lomibao will head to Nairobi, Kenya for the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). It was one of the first events where 179 governments recognized and acknowledged the link between women’s empowerment, reproductive health and gender and sustainable development.

Lomibao will be representing the youth sector and will be among the voices that ensure that the gains of the 1994 ICPD Conference will not be lost and will be carried forward for the next 25 years. – Rappler.com 

Ana P. Santos attended the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, Canada, with support from Women Deliver.