By: Laura Rodriguez, USAID

At the age of 17, Ishita Chaudhry recalls watching violent riots in her home country of India and being struck by the lack of political will and voice that her fellow peers had in decision making.  It was 2002.  Ishita was a senior in high school and suddenly became motivated to do something. She founded The YP Foundation (TYPF),  now the biggest youth-led organization in India, a country in which 315 million people or 31 percent of the population is under the age of 24.

Youth empowerment is a key message for all of the YP Foundation's programs. Photo Credit: Shiv Ahuja/YP Foundation

The YP Foundation’s mission is to empower young people to address health and rights, gender and sexuality, HIV/AIDS, human rights and peace building, life skills, governance and pro-active citizenship.

Over the years Chaudhry and her staff of 16 young people have worked with over 5,000 individuals to set up over 200 projects in India, training youth at international, regional and local levels as well as networks such as Students for the Promotion of International Law, the Global MDG Summit India 2008 and the Indian Youth Climate Network.

Yesterday, Chaudhry visited USAID and had a chance to discuss The YP Foundation and her take on the importance of youth in development projects.

“The work of Ishita and The YP Foundation serves as a model for how youth can be leaders in development if given the chance,” says Erin Mazursky, Youth Advisor for USAID.

In a country where it has long been taboo to talk about your body or sexuality—The YP Foundation is making strides, working on programs that are talking about sexuality. “Sexual education is more than safe sex.  It’s more about identity.  We have to take comfort and pride in our own bodies in order to make the right decisions to protect ourselves,” Chaudhry says. Through her work with a consortium of other non-profit organizations, she has been able to legalize the teaching of sexuality education in 13 Indian states where it was previously banned.

When asked about what is the most important way to approach youth, Chaudry stresses that empowerment must be a central strategy for youth, and they should be at the center of the development process.  Chaudhry mentions that the best way to reach youth is through other youth.  They relate to each other and speak the same language and negative stigma that the development community often puts on youth such as “at-risk” only makes it harder to respond to their needs.

Chaudhry has found creative ways to partner not just with the usual players such as UNICEF and UNESCO but also local governments and civil society groups.  She stresses that young people bring two central things to the table – an understanding of what is culturally relevant that helps development professionals make better decisions and an ability to make data age appropriate.  She has found that involving young people in the entire process of development from assessment to design to implementation is the heart of a rights-based approach.

Noting the recent attention to youth in the news, she mentions that, “The biggest difference with this generation of young people is that we are asking why things are the way they are. That, combined with greater access to information and a greater speed at which to use our voice helps to realize the power of citizenship and holding governments accountable.”

One of the notable projects of the YP Foundation is the “Know Your Body Know Your Rights”  campaign which is a peer education program that trains young people over a period of 4-6 months to become Peer Facilitators addressing the issues of Sexuality, Rights, Health and HIV & AIDS. Once the peer educators are trained they can work within their communities for 3-5 months with multiple stakeholders using different mediums as well as workshops.  Approximately 50% of new infections happen in young people.

She mentions, “There is a difference between receiving information and actual prevention. The ‘sexual’ part of sexual and reproductive health is not being met. We have to teach young people about themselves, and the best way to do that is through other young people.”

Learn more information on the YP Foundation and follow them on Twitter.