I first became interested in family planning and reproductive health during a class on health and developing countries in college. It was fascinating to me to learn how access to reproductive health has far-reaching health, economic, and societal impacts. However, I didn’t start focusing on the particular reproductive health needs and rights of young people until I studied abroad in northern Nigeria. There, I met young women and men who had frighteningly incorrect information about sexuality, pregnancy, and HIV. In the market, I saw 12- and 13-year-old girls who were dressed to advertise their eligibility for marriage, and I was told they would begin childbearing within the next year or two. When I graduated from college and started in my position as a Policy Fellow in USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health, I brought these lessons with me.
We young people are often accused of focusing too much on ourselves. But as the world’s largest ever generation of young people begin to enter their reproductive years, a focus on meeting the reproductive needs and rights of young people is well deserved. This Sunday, International Youth Day, gives us the opportunity to celebrate young people and reflect on their diverse needs around the world. Approximately 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year, and complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for this age group in developing countries. Girls who become pregnant often face discrimination within their communities, drop out of school, and are sometimes forced into early marriage. Girls who become pregnant are more likely to have a lower income and have more children at shorter intervals throughout their lifetime. In contrast, young women who avoid unintended pregnancy are more likely to stay in school; participate in the work force; and have healthier, better-educated children.
In April, I had the opportunity to serve as a youth delegate on the US delegation to the UN Commission on Population and Development. This year’s theme was adolescents and youth, and I’m proud of the bold outcome document adopted by member states. It addresses the real needs of young people for comprehensive education about human sexuality; gender equality; and removal of legal, regulatory and social barriers to reproductive health information and care for adolescents. The resolution also urges governments to protect, “the human rights of adolescents and youth to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health.”
Choices made about health-related behaviors and habits adopted during the transition years between childhood and adulthood can have either a positive or negative impact on future health and social well-being. Reproductive health constitute a key component of a healthy transition to adulthood, which is why USAID works across the globe to help improve education and access to youth reproductive health information and services. We are working to harness the energies of young people as we help them realize their full potential. We see them as the future and want their valued contributions to and participation in the social, economic, political, and cultural life of their communities.