Planned Parenthood Federation of America

15 November 2013

Africa: Young People Lead the Way On Family Planning

Photo: UNFPA
Youth club in Kenya.

guest column

New York — On a recent trip to a rural town in Kenya, I had a disheartening exchange.

I asked the head nurse of a "youth-friendly" clinic how she handled young women's requests for contraception. The day before, a 16-year-old girl had visited the clinic to get a contraceptive shot. The nurse asked her how many men she was sleeping with. "Contraceptives are for married women, not young girls who sleep around," she said.

The lesson I took away was this: While critical, financial and political commitments cannot change the attitudes often standing in the way of getting contraception to those who need it most. We also have to empower and engage the people in communities that are directly affected -- particularly youth.

Last July in London, the world came together to commit US$2.6 billion to expand modern contraceptive access to an additional 120 million women worldwide by 2020. These commitments from governments, the private sector, foundations, and others were historic, coming after decades of family planning spurring controversy, not consensus.

They will help ensure that family planning tools are more affordable in the poorest countries, and that clinics are stocked with a variety of contraceptive methods. But they will not reach their full potential without a concurrent shift in opinions about family planning.

Young people desperately need effective family planning tools. They're the generation most vulnerable to unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. They also face the greatest barriers to access.

Sometimes basic services simply don't exist, and elsewhere, young people confront dangerous myths and misconceptions about sex and pregnancy. In some cases, judgment from a provider - the one person who's supposed to be a safe source for information and services - is the obstacle.

The State of World Population 2013 report, released by UNFPA last month, builds on this critical point. Governments and the international community are working hard to address prevention of teen pregnancy, but the focus has been mostly on changing the behavior of the girl and not the community, schools, or political structures around her.

When policies and health providers don't measure up, we have to find new solutions. Youth are the ones who will be able to change deep-seated attitudes within a community. That's why Planned Parenthood and others are working to put young people at the front lines of delivering contraception and family planning.

Throughout Latin America and Africa, young men and women are educating their peers about family planning, safe sex, and healthy relationships.

The results from these projects are extremely encouraging: Empowered with new information, young men and women go out and share what they have learned, which is the first step to expanding family planning access. These youth peer providers are willing to address issues that would otherwise go unspoken.

However, information sharing is only the first step. Young people facing cultural taboos around age and sexuality may have difficulty translating knowledge into access.

Contraception is available over the counter at pharmacies and is often free at health clinics, yet as my conversation with the Kenyan nurse exemplifies, fear and stigma often stand in the way of access. In response, youth peer providers go one step beyond education.

Youth are becoming the service providers. They are putting modern pregnancy prevention methods, including condoms, directly in the hands of their clients - friends, classmates, and acquaintances. Many of their clients avoid the formal health care system for fear of being recognized by family members or neighbors, or shamed by judgmental medical staff.

The benefits of this approach go beyond individuals, mobilizing a generation and challenging the power dynamics around sex and reproductive health, community by community.

There's incredible energy among young people to take up this challenge.

It's our job to harness this by supporting proven models and adapting them to places where other solutions have failed.

This week, I've joined thousands of policymakers, reproductive health advocates, and youth leaders at the International Conference on Family Planning, the largest family planning conference in history.

The question everyone is asking is: One year after the London Summit on Family Planning, what has been done to change the lives of millions of women and girls? The people I am listening to are the youth. This is their time to tell us - the adults - what's working in their communities.

Political leadership and donor commitments are essential first steps to expanding family planning access, but it's young people who are proving that judgmental attitudes will not stand in the way of lifesaving health care.

Latanya Mapp Frett is Vice President - Global, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

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