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‘Nothing about us without us’ – putting young people and their sexual and reproductive health and rights at the centre

Participants in discussion in working groups

At a virtual two-day conference, experts from around the world discussed challenges and opportunities in advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights for – and together with – young people.

Every statistic has a face: A 15-year-old girl in Kenya falls pregnant and has no one to turn to but wants to continue her education. A young homosexual man in Uganda fears for his safety because in his home country homosexuality is against the law. Young people like these – and what it takes to ensure their sexual and reproductive health and rights – were at the heart of this year’s 19th International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development which took place on November 17 and 18, 2021.

In her welcoming remarks, Dr Maria Flachsbarth, Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), called for a holistic and multisectoral approach: Actors in the health, education and employment sectors should join forces to reach young people in their diverse living contexts and enable them to realise their sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

Dr Maria Flachsbarth, BMZ welcoming the participants
Dr Maria Flachsbarth, BMZ welcoming the participants

The two-day virtual conference offered numerous opportunities for exchange. Experts from around the globe took part in passionate debates on, for example, the prevention of intimate partner violence, meaningful youth participation in realising SRHR, cooperation with religious actors, and young people’s access to rights-based family planning. 

The largest ever generation of young people is growing up

Frank Strelow, VP, Head of Sustainability, Pharmaceuticals at Bayer AG, highlighted the fact that the world’s largest-ever generation of young people is currently growing up – about a third of the world’s population is younger than 20 years – and this generation faces increasing poverty, rising inequality and a climate emergency. To tackle these challenges, he said, young people need to be healthy and educated so that they can exercise their rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights. Strelow pointed out that this International Dialogue was meant to provide a safe space in which delegates can explore ideas and build alliances. ‘It is always about finding solutions and a way forward – and this has never been more urgent than today.’

Health workers need to treat young people with respect 

One of the strategic priorities for realising young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights is health systems strengthening. Claudia Warning, BMZ’s Director General for Asia; South-Eastern and Eastern Europe; Middle East; Latin America; civil society and churches,called for investments in the quality of health service delivery. She stressed that capacity building measures for health care personnel should encourage and enable them to treat young people with respect. To become more youth-friendly health services must cater to the specific needs of adolescents.

The importance of comprehensive sexuality education can’t be overstated

In a passionate plea, Diene Keita, Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) and Deputy Executive Director for Programmes at the United Nations Population Fund, reminded her audience that ‘the importance of comprehensive sexuality education can’t be overstated…it enables life-impacting decisions to be made in an informed and empowered way. However, parents, schools and community leaders need to support and be in favour of comprehensive sexuality education, and this is often not the case.’ ASG Keita also stressed the need to strengthen the evidence base for the implementation of effective comprehensive sexuality education programmes at scale.According to Julius Natangwe Nghifikwa, Deputy-Director HIV and School Health Programmes at Namibia’s Ministry of Education, Arts & Culture, his government’s initiative to introduce comprehensive sexuality education in schools across the country initially encountered ‘a lot of resistance from faith-based institutions, community leaders and parents. He said that it took many dialogues at both national and community level to bring more traditional parents and community leaders on board and that his ministry was now beginning to see some success.

‘Get on with youth empowerment!’ 

Kate Gilmore, Chair of the Board of Trustees for the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), called on all delegates to move faster in their efforts to empower youth: ‘Youth empowerment is important because human rights oblige it, democratic values require it, demographic realities demand it. Get on with it, people!’. 

Angela Bähr, Director Projects and Programmes and Deputy Executive Director of the Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, turned to the younger delegates and reminded herself as well as delegates in leadership positions that ‘we need to listen when you speak up’. 

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated simply and powerfully that ‘nothing about young people should be decided without young people’ while stressing that youth empowerment is important because it will determine what the future will hold.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, greeting the participants
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, greeting the participants

Acknowledging diversity – and acting multisectorally

Ulukbek Batyrgaliev, a 22-year-old Youth Board Member from IPPF, reminded delegates that young people are ‘infinitely diverse’. He called for young people from many different backgrounds and with different interests to get involved in solving the challenges facing them.

There was consensus amongst speakers and delegates that guaranteeing young people’s sexual and reproductive rights requires collaboration beyond sectoral borders. Suki Beavers, Director of the Department Gender Equality, Human Rights and Country Engagement at UNAIDS, described a multisectoral approach “as a must”. Carolin Bansbach, Head of section Health, Education and Social Development at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), concurred that multisectoral cooperation is key for fostering the realisation of young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in all spheres of life. She shared the example of Vocational Training Institutes in Mozambique that German development cooperation supported in integrating sexual education into the curriculum and in strengthening cooperation with sexual and reproductive health service providers.

We must raise our voices together

Jan Kreutzberg, Executive Director of the Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung (DSW), reiterated the call for more youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services and comprehensive sexuality education. He pointed at the need for decision-makers to overcome entrenched paternalistic attitudes towards young people in order to meaningfully engage with them. Although the pandemic had exacerbated the challenges, he said that the discussions at this International Dialogue gave him reason to feel confident: ‘I am certain that if we are persistent and raise our voices together, we will win new allies and we can achieve our objectives’.

Anja Kueppers-McKinnon, December 2021

© Dana Brandenburger
© Dana Brandenburger
© Dana Brandenburger
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