Prior to joining IWHC as Program Officer of International Policy in November 2009, Alex Garita led the international advocacy program at IPPF/Western Hemisphere Region. During her time with IPPF/WHR, Alex also helped to build the capacity of partners in Latin America and the Caribbean to advocate for their sexual and reproductive rights in international decision-making fora. Before moving to New York, she was the Mexico Program Officer at ARTICLE 19, The Global Campaign for Free Expression, where she implemented a project on access to information and the sexual and reproductive rights of young people. An activist committed to advancing women and young people’s rights, Alex formed part of Decidir (Choice: Youth Coalition for Sexual Citizenship), where she protested, wrote, and advocated for young people’s rights to safe and legal abortion in Mexico City prior to the liberalization of the law.
For our series on youth health and rights, I interviewed Alex about what international policy and youth rights look like from where she’s sitting.
AR: What is the connection between local programming and international policy? They seem very distant.
AG: First, to give some context: overwhelmingly, young people around the world don’t have access to sexual and reproductive rights and health information and services. This lack of access is due to restrictive laws, especially parental consent for sexual health services for minors. The barriers to access are rooted in the legal system but also in the ways in which society views young people. This creates a situation where providers may want to provide services, but they are afraid of being prosecuted or “encouraging” of young people having sex. But the reality is, young people are having sex, so this combination of factors makes them really vulnerable.
Through doing this work over the past years, it’s become really clear to me that on the program side of things, unless the program involves young people in educating peers in young people-only safe spaces, it doesn’t click. Without this important piece, the programs don’t work and then the young people being targeted don’t end up changing their behaviors. I know that in a traditional health education environment they just aren’t learning.
Which is a long lead up to say that because young people know what they need and know what their peers need to make a difference in how they use the information they learn, they must be participants in sexual and reproductive rights and health policy and program development. If young people get the opportunity to talk to policy makers, then the decision maker can translate that knowledge into service design, and create trainings for health care providers to be sensitive to youth needs and respect privacy. That level of knowledge on the policy makers’ end of things makes a big difference in creating effective programming.
AR: How can youth make impact at the international policy level?
AG: Youth must gain access to decision makers, because policy makers don’t think to ask young people on their own. If young people are empowered to enter spaces of power, and make themselves heard, it can have impact. And one of the spaces in which young people’s participation has been successful is at the international level. In 1999, at the Cairo Plus 5 conference, governments agreed to prioritize youth participation in policy and program development processes. In the 90s, governments began to look at young people as a population that needed specialized services; The conference created spaces for young people to share their experiences and thoughts about what services and support they need, and a host of new youth networks were established, and trainings to foster youth leadership were developed. Young people used this international agreement then and still actively use it now to advocate for services and rights in their home countries. Since 1999 this has been happening in Peru, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil, and a little bit in Nigeria.
One of the challenges facing youth-friendly policies and programs in health is that there are some governments that are motivated by trying to achieve measurable behavior changes like delay of first intercourse, increased usage of condoms, with reduction of pre-marital pregnancy and HIV transmission. But having these goals without real support and involvement from young people is simply not going to work. Part of the problem is that you can measure the number of condoms distributed, while measuring access to comprehensive services and attitude/behavior changes is much harder to do.
AR: In terms of creating polices that governments focus on, what have been the gains?
Access to services, protection of rights, recognition that young people are rights holders, recognition of the evolving capacities of young people and the fact that they need full information, as well as young people gaining access to meaningful participation and a seat at the table with policy makers.
These gains are happening in a lot in places where programs are strong – the countries I listed before – in places where there is a history of strong social movements. But in many Asian, Latin American, and African countries, for example, and even in this country, there is rampant discrimination against young people and little recognition that they are capable of making responsible choices about their sexual lives and health. Young people aren’t encouraged to speak out, so it is harder for them to be empowered, make their voices heard, and have an impact in policy.