The largest generation of young people in history are about to enter their reproductive years. We have the energy and ingenuity to drive change in our communities and will play a key role in building a healthy and prosperous future for all. An unplanned pregnancy puts our health and their future at risk. This growing generational divide has enormous implications for sustainable development. However, there have been insufficient investments in addressing the challenges young people face to truly fulfill their maximum potentials as key actors in achieving a sustainable and equitable world. The challenges are most acute in the less developed countries, where nearly 9 out of 10 of the world’s young people reside.
My profound interest in working with the most marginalized young people has led me to work with adolescent girls for five years in “safe spaces” in the rural communities of Nigeria, where I mentor and tutor young people in safe spaces usually convened in the homes of imams and community leaders and in schools.
Maryam is one of the girls I met in a community, in Northern Nigeria. She had the beautiful dream of becoming the first nurse in her community but this dream was cut short when she married Aminu at the age of 13! A year after marriage, Maryam conceived her first child which came with so many complications. She narrowly escaped incurring a vaginal fistula due to her young age and immature pelvis. After her first delivery, she wanted to WAIT before the next—but these were not her decisions to make. Her husband insisted she had more children right away; and today, at the age of eighteen, she has three children. Further complicating her life is the fact that her husband lost his in a road traffic accident.
Maryam’s constant questions to herself and anyone who cares to listen are; How do I fend for these children? How do I fulfil my dreams? Why did you let me down?
Maryam is one of the millions of young people around the world, especially girls, who live out the nightmare and consequences of child marriage and lack of access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. In sub-Saharan Africa, and South Central and West Asia, more than 60% of adolescents who want to avoid pregnancy, are not using a method of contraception.
Through the Centre for Girls Education, I work to delay child marriage by keeping marginalized adolescent girls in school as it improves their core academic performance and provides opportunities for them to build trusting relationships and acquire critical sexual and reproductive health knowledge and life skills not currently offered in government education.
Girl child education is dear to my heart because when young people face uncertainty and insecurity about prospects for education, employment and income, they are less likely to practice healthy and safe sexual behaviours or to make informed decisions about their health.
Also, I am privileged to join the esteemed Reference Group of Family Planning 2020 this year, the global partnership dedicated to ensuring that women and girls are empowered to decide, freely, and for themselves, whether, when, and how many children they want to have.
As the youngest person on this 18-member body, my mandate is to represent youth needs at the highest levels of this partnership by networking and mobilizing my peers to ensure governments at all levels deliver on their FP2020 commitments. I work to shine a spotlight on the unique sexual and reproductive health needs of young people and adolescents that are so critically linked to women and girls’ empowerment and all the Sustainable Development Goals.
If countries are to succeed in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, governments and civil society alike must make room for the voices of young people from a variety of backgrounds, especially the poorest and marginalized. We must be able to control our reproductive futures if we are to be a force in shaping the future of our planet.
There must be much more dedicated investment in finding solutions to the unique challenges young people face if we are to fulfill our potential as key actors in achieving a sustainable and equitable world. Not only do the global community needs to design health and family planning solutions with young people rather than for young people but this should also be evident at country and sub-countries levels.
We must change the policy, socio-cultural, and implementation barriers around youth—such as adolescent pregnancy, forced child marriages or barriers to meaningfully youth leadership and full participation.
As young people, we are the change agents best positioned to tackle the enormous challenges faced by our generation and we have the power to mobilize our peers and networks to make the Sustainable Development Goals work for us.
Youth are the future and the future is now. Empower young people to meaningfully engage in every stage of decision making – research, designing, planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluation – we need to be there, to be reached.
While there are many things we can do to break down barriers to youth access, I will leave you with three that I feel have the greatest potential to accelerate progress:
- Remove policy barriers that prevent young people from accessing the resources they need to plan their families.
- Provide youth friendly services that meet context specific needs, are based on evidence and are designed, implemented, monitored, and evaluated in partnership with young people.
- Ensure there are trainings and supervision programs that effectively address medical and personal providers’ biases regarding young people’s use of all available contraceptives.
We must harness the power of youth to together deliver on the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals for a healthy, just, peaceful and prosperous planet.