To Build Better Youth Policies, Listen to Young People

In his official address commemorating International Youth Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called youth a “transformative force,” adding: “Young men and women are not passive beneficiaries, but equal and effective partners. Their aspirations extend far beyond jobs; youth also want a seat at the table — a real voice in shaping the policies that shape their lives. We need to listen to and engage with young people. We need to establish more and stronger mechanisms for youth participation. The time has come to integrate youth voices more meaningfully into decision-making processes at all levels.”

Indeed, youth participation is now widely recognized as a fundamental human right. At the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, governments acknowledged that young people ages 10-24 have special needs for sexual and reproductive health information and services, and that their involvement and participation in designing and implementing programs that meet these needs will be critical to international development.

This month, more than 20 years since ICPD, the Journal of Adolescent Health published a special supplement evaluating progress in addressing adolescent sexual and reproductive health, including efforts to increase youth participation and leadership. In one article in the supplement, Laura Villa-Torres and Joar Svanemyr found that youth participation in sexual and reproductive health initiatives has flourished. In fact, youth-led organizations have been very successful in advocating for adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights at the UN level.

One such group is an IWHC partner organization, the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. The Youth Coalition is a youth-led membership organization that advocates at the regional and international levels. The group has a specific process for applying to membership and for aging out of the organization: members are limited to youth between the ages of 15 to 30 years old. As Villa-Torres and Svanemyr note, this helps to “ensure the transmission of leadership of the organization to younger generations.”

While youth leadership has increased, the authors are careful to point out what youth participation is not: simply having a youth project at an organization or only employing young people as low or unpaid interns or volunteers. The authors note this kind of token youth participation could demoralize young people by not demonstrating willingness or capacity to create equal staff positions for young people inside an organization, including at the management level.

This year, governments will meet at the United Nations to commit to a common set of development goals that will direct international funding and programs for decades to come. This is a critical moment for young people to make their voices heard. The International Women’s Health Coalition is working with our partners to ensure that young people are included in these negotiations. Young people truly are a “transformative force,” but they need the opportunity to thrive. Youth participation is critical to the success of all nations.

This blog post is the third of a five-part series summarizing the research featured in the January 2015 special supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health. The supplement reviews the progress on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.

Access the supplement for free here.

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