Youth-led initiatives put the focus on bodily autonomy and sexual health

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Asia Pacific region: home of the world’s young population

The Asia Pacific region is home to 60% of the world’s young population – 750 million young people of all genders aged 15 to 24 years. Many adolescents and young people in the region continue to transition to adulthood with inadequate information, including on matters of sexual and reproductive health and rights, that affects their physical, social and emotional well-being. At the same time, honing the leadership abilities of these young people can make them effective advocates for social change by proposing and implementing creative solutions for the most pressing issues that are affecting societies.

When design thinking and social innovation converge

In mid-September 2022, over 70 youth changemakers, mentored by Malaysia-based Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), gathered in Kuala Lumpur to link and learn at the 2022 Asia Youth Festival on Innovation and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

They were part of ARROW’s Changemakers Programme launched in 2020 – a leadership programme that blends social innovation and design thinking, intersectionality, and sexuality to empower diverse young people to become torch bearers for social change.

Participants from several countries shared the work that they are doing in their communities to drive positive social change that is pivotal to sustainable development in the region.

According to Sivananthi Thanenthiran, Executive Director, ARROW, the youth changemakers programme helped in building the youth movement for sustainable development in the Asia region. “The COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to look at the existing gaps in sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and marginalized communities in societies. We needed to see how to move the agenda – of sexual and reproductive health and rights – forward,” she says. As donor funding shrinks and gets diverted to pandemic response, the importance of social entrepreneurship to ensure sustainability is inevitable, she adds.

Youth leaders strongly believe that it is crucial for young people, especially those from marginalized communities, to not only have the correct information but also access to services related to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In Pakistan, Fayyaz Hanif runs a project in Lahore that reaches out to teenage married girls and young mothers to provide them with adequate information on birth spacing and family planning services. Men are also engaged in this process, as they too are reticent to talk about family planning. Fayyaz says that, given the taboo around the subject, men are hesitant in going to a pharmacy and asking for condoms. “We organize ‘baithaks’ or community spaces to conduct informal dialogues where we invite young men and discuss issues of family planning. We also ensure that they have access to condoms,” he says.

In the Philippines, Lian Cambel has designed a campaign to address the problem of rising adolescent pregnancies. The Philippines has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Southeast Asia. The Philippines President has acknowledged that preventing teenage pregnancies is ‘a national priority’.

Awareness is a major challenge, and even though comprehensive sexuality education is part of the school curriculum young people do not take it seriously, says Lian.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected access to family planning services for young people. Lian conducted online training for 70 young men and women to empower them to become advocates on the issue. These advocates use creative means like art and poetry to raise awareness on the issue of teenage pregnancy.

Gaps in information are a pressing problem, youth changemakers say. Nepal’s Lirisha Tuladhar has designed a digital platform to ensure that young people have access to accurate information on sexual health and rights. “There is a lot of misinformation on the internet. So it becomes all the more important for young people to know where to go for accurate information,” Lirisha says.

She runs a website, uses social media, and makes available interview podcasts of experts on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the local Nepalese language so that marginalized communities are able to get correct information. Issues around consent in sexual relationships, bodily autonomy, and comprehensive sexuality education are some of the themes discussed.

While it is crucial that young people are empowered to prevent unintended pregnancies, access to safe and legal abortion services is equally important. Last week, in India, the Supreme Court gave a ruling that all women, regardless of their marital status, are entitled to safe and legal abortion. Also, recently in Thailand, the government has legalised abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, extending it from the earlier 12 weeks. Clearly, there is a growing recognition of women’s rights to bodily autonomy, and also that ensuring safe and legal abortion is crucial to addressing maternal mortality and morbidity.

Nayanika Das, a youth changemaker from India, has named her project ‘Ab-normal’. ‘Ab’ means ‘now’ in Hindi. It is now time to normalize conversations around abortion, she says. “Why does abortion have to have so much shame and guilt around it? Why must there be this secrecy, this silence?” she asks. Her project envisions creating spaces where people who underwent abortion can talk about it.

As a young woman who accessed abortion, she says the core idea is to challenge the stigma abortion seekers to face. The mentoring from ARROW helped her identify a social change that matters to her personally. “I realized it is my right to have access to safe abortion and that the silence around it is not healthy,” she says.

When young people themselves identify the social problems they face and want to address them through innovative solutions, everyone stands to gain. For many of the youth changemakers, using digital platforms, building safe spaces in communities for dialogue, and challenging stereotypes seem to be the underlying common thread. Whilst these are nascent pilot projects and it is too early to determine their full impact, such innovative and passionate efforts that further SRHR advocacy merit attention and encouragement. Building a strong youth movement is crucial for sustainable development, especially in a region that hosts nearly two-thirds of the world’s youth.

Sumita Thapar

(Sumita Thapar is CNS Special Correspondent, a noted journalist and a development communication expert.)

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