|Including Youth Participation and Empowerment in Sexual and Reproductive Health Programs|
María Antonieta Alcalde Castro, Balance (Mexico) and the Youth Coalition
Including Youth Participation and Empowerment in Sexual and Reproductive Health Programs
This afternoon I will talk to you about the importance of youth participation. I will share the experiences of two successful organizations working on this issue, Balance, Promoción para el Desarrollo y Juventud (Development Promotion and Youth) and the Youth Coalition.
Let me start with my own experience. I come from a very conservative family where you never, not even now, talk openly about sexuality. I studied all my life in public schools where sexuality education is just about anatomy. When I was 16, I started working on youth leadership and became involved in youth empowerment issues, and later on, in sexual and reproductive rights. Working on these issues has given me the opportunity to learn more about myself as well as the world around me. I have been able to share my personal concerns with other young people, and become more aware of other people's realities. Fortunately, I have met inspiring people with whom I can build and share a dream.
Having access to scientific and trustworthy information about sexuality, being part of a movement where young people are recognized as important actors in development, having the responsibility of designing and running a program to benefit other young people, and representing their needs in decision-making processes have helped me grow stronger and gain more control over my decisions and…over my life in general. This is one of the main reasons I completely believe in youth empowerment: I have benefited from it.
In Mexico, and worldwide, we can easily find reproductive health programs for teens that see them as no more than a target population with specific health needs. Most likely the services these programs provide are not based on what young people say they need and want. Moreover, this approach rests on the common perception that adolescents are just a "problem" or a group in need of "protection" from all kinds of risks. What this view ignores is the potential for adolescents to act proactively and positively, and what it wastes is an enormous resource for social development and change.
Today, Balance promotes youth empowerment, participation, and perspectives by working directly with young people. We conduct workshops on leadership skills and adolescent health and rights for youth groups in different regions of Mexico. We also train leaders of organizations, health service providers, and policy-makers to incorporate our youth perspective into their work. Our goal is to promote the inclusion of a youth perspective in all programs and projects related to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Balance's innovative model has two main components. First, we provide opportunities for groups of young people to come together to discuss their needs, choose their priorities, and build their own agenda. Within these "safe spaces," we offer youth training in sexuality education, advocacy, and institutional development. For example, in 2000, with Elige, a Mexican youth network, I coordinated the formation of the Latin America and Caribbean Youth Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. This network is open to young people working on these issues throughout the region. It provides training for members to strengthen their roles within their communities and in the regional movement.
Second, Balance creates opportunities for young people to share their points of view and experiences with adults who are policy-makers, service providers, and teachers. We foster dialogue about young people's powerlessness in order to build more democratic relationships between the generations. By helping adults to understand and value the knowledge, experiences, and work of youth, they can forge new relationships based on respect. The generations can then work together to develop effective policies and programs.
Last year, Balance, in collaboration with Policy Project-Mexico, helped create a youth network to work with other nongovernmental organizations and the government on HIV/AIDS activities in the Yucatan. In their role as an equal partner, the youth strengthened the impact of outreach to young people.
The Youth Coalition, comprised of young people aged 15 to 29, has adopted the same approach as Balance. We promote youth participation in local, national, and international processes by building the capacity of our members. Within the Youth Coalition, young people are the main actors. Our members come from countries as varied as Mexico, Canada, India, The Netherlands, and Sweden. We have made it a priority to exchange skills and information with other young people and encourage them to become activists for their rights.
In the last two years, Youth Coalition members have trained more than 80 young leaders from all over the world to advocate for sexual and reproductive rights nationally and internationally. We have also participated actively in Beijing Plus Five, the Special Session on Children, and other UN processes, where we have lobbied governments on issues of adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Social Conservatism: Some sectors of society find it disturbing when young people join together to openly discuss their sexuality and work for their sexual and reproductive rights. Unfortunately, these conservative people have a lot of resources and power, and they focus great effort on blocking youth initiatives like ours.
Distrust of youth groups: When you are in an organization of young people, you discover that it is very hard to gain the respect and trust of other organizations, institutions, and foundations. Of course, you need to demonstrate, like almost everyone, that you are knowledgeable about your issues and have experience working on them. But at the same time you also have to prove that your youth does not make you immature or irresponsible, characteristics commonly associated with being an adolescent. This presents a big obstacle for obtaining financial and technical resources, as well as gaining access to decision-makers.
Programs that have a problem-based approach: We have found that, worldwide, most of the work currently being done with youth is focused on solving specific, urgent problems. These programs do not have the long-term goal of developing the capacities of young people. This narrow vision is so pervasive that it makes it extremely difficult for many to understand why our approach of involving and empowering youth is so important.
Despite these barriers, what keeps us struggling are the many positive results we see from our work. They prove how important it is to adopt a youth participation and empowerment model. Some examples are:
A lot more needs to be done to give adolescents better life options. This work requires being open-minded and not afraid of working with young people as equals. There is no doubt in my mind that as long as children and adolescents continue to be seen as incomplete human beings, with limited decision-making capacities and only in need of protection, we will not create sensible policies and programs that meet the needs of youth and offer them the resources they need to achieve a better quality of life.
This speech was part of Adolescents at the Crossroads, a panel presentation on adolescent sexuality education organized by IWHC in cooperation with Aahung (Pakistan), Action Health Incorporated (Nigeria), the Youth Coalition, the United Nations Population Fund, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank, during the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children (May 8-10, 2002).