Youth-led initiatives focus on bodily autonomy and sexual health

Youth-led initiatives focus on bodily autonomy and sexual health

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

When design thinking and social innovation converge

In mid-September 2022, more than 70 young changemakers, mentored by the Asia-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (ARROW) based in Malaysia, gathered in Kuala Lumpur to connect and learn at the Festival Asian Youth Forum 2022 on Innovation and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. They were part of ARROW’s Changemakers program launched in 2020 – a leadership program that blends social innovation and design thinking, intersectionality and sexuality to empower diverse young people to become torchbearers for social change.

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

According to Sivananthi Thanenthiran, Executive Director of ARROW, the Young Changemakers Program has contributed to the creation of the youth movement for sustainable development in the Asia region. “The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to examine existing gaps in sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and marginalized communities in societies. We had to see how to move the agenda – of sexual and reproductive health and rights – forward,” she says. As donor funding dwindles and is diverted to pandemic response, the importance of social entrepreneurship to ensure sustainability is inevitable, she adds.

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

In Pakistan, Fayyaz Hanif runs a project in Lahore that reaches out to married adolescents 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 reluctant to talk about family planning. Fayyaz says given the taboo around the subject, men are hesitant to walk into a pharmacy and ask for condoms. “We organize ‘baithaks’ or community spaces to conduct informal dialogues where we invite young men and discuss family planning issues. We also make sure they have access to condoms,” he says.

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

Raising awareness is a big challenge, and even though comprehensive sex education is part of the school curriculum, young people don’t take it seriously, says Lian. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected access to family planning services for young people. Lian organized online training for 70 young men and women to empower them to become advocates. These advocates use creative means like art and poetry to raise awareness of the issue of teenage pregnancy.

Information gaps are a pressing problem, say young changemakers. Nepalese Lirisha Tuladhar has designed a digital platform to ensure 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,” says Lirisha. She runs a website, uses social media and makes available podcasts of expert interviews on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the local Nepali language so that marginalized communities can get the right information. Issues relating to consent in sexual relations, bodily autonomy and comprehensive sex education are some of the topics covered.

While empowering young people to prevent unwanted pregnancies is crucial, access to safe and legal abortion services is equally important. Last week in India, the Supreme Court ruled that all women, regardless of marital status, have the right to a safe and legal abortion. In addition, recently in Thailand, the government legalized abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, extending it from the first 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 young changemaker from India, named her project ‘Ab-normal’. “Ab” means “now” in Hindi. Now is the time to normalize conversations around abortion, she says. “Why should abortion be surrounded by so much shame and guilt? Why must there be this secrecy, this silence? she asks. Her project envisions creating spaces where people who have had an abortion can talk about it. As a young woman who has accessed abortion, she says the central idea is to challenge the stigma that abortion seekers face. ARROW’s mentorship has helped her identify a social change that matters to her personally. “I realized that it was my right to have access to safe abortion and that the silence surrounding it was not healthy,” she says.

When young people themselves identify the social problems they face and want to solve them with innovative solutions, everyone wins. For many young changemakers, using digital platforms, creating safe spaces in communities for dialogue and challenging stereotypes seem to be the underlying common thread. Although these are nascent pilot projects and it is too early to determine their full impact, such innovative and passionate efforts that advance SRHR advocacy deserve 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 – CNS (Citizen Press Service)

(Sumita Thapar is a CNS Special Correspondent, renowned journalist and development communication expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SumitaT or read: )

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