Guest contributor Katelin Gray, a program assistant for our advocacy and public policy team, recently returned from the International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Only moments after I entered the opening ceremony of the International Conference on Family Planning, I realized I was surrounded by my peers. More than 300 youth leaders, ages 18 to 25, flocked to Addis Ababa to commit to reducing adolescent pregnancy and to press the need to engage young people in decisions about reproductive health. As a 24-year-old entering the field of global health advocacy, I was struck by the catalytic role that individuals my age can play in determining our own reproductive future.
Youth advocates and high-level officials shared a clear message: we must support developing countries in advancing policies that empower adolescents to take charge of their reproductive health. Eager to see these policies put in place, youth participants issued four calls to action:
- Expand comprehensive sexuality education.
- Reduce barriers and restrictive policies that limit access to family planning commodities.
- Increase engagement of youth in creating solutions.
- Ensure that services respond to the needs of youth and are free of stigma.
Giving birth before 15
Young girls often fall through the cracks of programs and policies aimed at preventing adolescent pregnancy. Of the 7.3 million adolescents who give birth every year, 2 million are between the ages of 10 and 14.
When family planning advocacy overlooks very young adolescents, staggering health risks result. According to the United Nation’s Population Fund’s 2013 report on the state of the world population, Motherhood in Childhood, the maternal mortality rate of girls ages 10 to 14 is double that of older adolescents. Successful interventions for reducing pregnancy at all stages of adolescence do exist, but much needs to be done to make sure these interventions reach those who need them.
Time for youth to take part
Because young people like me are often excluded from discussions about policy change, we have the most to gain by engaging in advocacy efforts to improve our reproductive health. We should be highly active in this process, develop an advocacy goal, and seek outlets to make our demands heard.
Energized young people, such as those I met at the conference, could be the stimulating force we need to reach all adolescents. This can only happen if young people use our power to speak up—for each other and to each other— for evidence-based policies aimed at ensuring reproductive health for all ages.