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Overcoming the Stigma of Disability Across the Globe

USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack greets a young women in an English class at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack greets a young women in an English class at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

Growing up in Laos, Chanhpheng Sivila contracted polio at the age of 3, which affected her leg and spine and made walking difficult. When it came time to go to school, her parents wouldn’t let her attend, telling her they couldn’t afford a school uniform for all 12 of their children.

But Chanhpheng was determined to get an education. Defying her family’s reservations, Chanhpheng decided one day to steal her big sister’s old school uniform and then secretly followed her to school. Her boldness paid off. The teachers at school saw Chanhpheng’s determination and convinced her parents to let her attend.

The 4-foot-7 Chanhpheng battled her way through school and eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the National Academy of Politics and Public Administration in Vietnam and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Rattana College in Laos. She refused to let the stigma of having a disability get in her way.

In 1990, Madam Chanhpheng founded an organization that became the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre. She is now a tireless and inspiring advocate for the rights of women and girls with disabilities.

25 Years of Empowerment

As Madam Chanhpheng’s center celebrates 25 years of empowering women and girls with disabilities in Laos, the United States is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark legislation guarantees rights of individuals with disabilities in the United States.

It also serves as model legislation informing disability rights internationally, including in many of the countries where USAID works today. The law’s principles of access, inclusion and non-discrimination are woven into USAID’s own Disability Policy, which promotes the inclusion of persons with disabilities across all of our programs.

Dr. Jill Biden and USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack pose with students from Hanoi College of Information Technology in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

Dr. Jill Biden and USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack pose with students from Hanoi College of Information Technology in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

I recently accompanied Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden on a trip to Laos and Vietnam. On the trip we saw some of USAID’s efforts to give children and youth with disabilities access to education as well as workforce development training.

Dr. Biden recognized the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre for its work educating and empowering young women in Laos over the last two and a half decades. Each year, the center provides basic education, life skills and job-related training for 35 young women. Since 2002, over 500 young women with disabilities have graduated from the center.

Our delegation visited a reading class and a papermaking demonstration, and then we bought scarves woven by the women in the program. The center benefitted from a USAID grant given to World Education Laos through the Senator Patrick Leahy War Victims Fund; the fund primarily helps individuals with disabilities in conflict-affected countries.

While in Asia, Dr. Biden and I also visited students from the Hanoi College of Information Technology in Vietnam, where USAID has collaborated with Catholic Relief Services since 2007 to provide advanced computer skills training to over 700 youth with disabilities. About 70 percent of the program’s graduates have found jobs; a few have even found their life partners in the class and have plans to marry.

The U.S. Government has supported inclusive development programs in Vietnam for the last 25 years, even before normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995.

The Road Ahead

Madam Chanhpheng Sivila shows off a scarf made by young women at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

Madam Chanhpheng Sivila shows off a scarf made by young women at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

According to UNESCO, most children with disabilities in developing countries are out of school. The problem isn’t that they don’t want to be in school or that they can’t afford it. The reason is often negative and discriminatory attitudes, like those faced by Madam Chanhpheng, combined with physical barriers.

USAID is committed to finding new strategies to reach people with disabilities. Earlier this year, our All Children Reading Grand Challenge for Development awarded funding to five organizations for their low-cost, technology-based solutions to promote literacy for children with disabilities. They are developing and implementing these reading technologies over the next two years in Georgia, India, Lesotho, Morocco and the Philippines.

Another major obstacle to addressing the out-of-school issue is the lack of data on children and youth with disabilities. A great first step would be to gather data on the numbers of children with disabilities in and out of school, disaggregated by type of disability. This would help us to know who is being left out of the education system and allow us to study the barriers in order to plan effective interventions.

The data would undoubtedly be telling, but we will also need to open our minds to what is happening behind the numbers. By learning from people like Madam Chanhpheng, we will be better positioned to steer the agenda for educating children and youth with disabilities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is the Senior International Education Advisor at USAID. Follow her @ChristieVilsack.

Around the World in Videos: How USAID is Helping Curb Child and Maternal Deaths

Mom and baby are doing fine because mom was taught how to perform Kangaroo Mother Care to keep her premature newborn warm. / Molly Ronan, Embrace Global

Mom and baby are doing fine because mom was taught how to perform Kangaroo Mother Care to keep her premature newborn warm. / Molly Ronan, Embrace Global

In 1990, more than 12 million children under the age of 5 died every year because of preventable conditions and diseases. Today, we face a situation considerably less bleak.

But still, far too many children today are being robbed of the chance to lead full, healthy lives. They are being robbed by illnesses we can prevent and treat. And far too many mothers won’t get to hold their newborn in their arms. These women won’t have the chance to raise their families or contribute to their communities.

Over the past six years, the Obama administration has strategically focused our maternal and child health programs in the 24 countries that account for more than 70 percent of child and maternal deaths globally.

By providing expectant mothers with high-quality and respectful care during delivery, resuscitation for newborns, vaccinations, diarrhea treatment and education about the importance of breastfeeding and handwashing, it is estimated we have helped save the lives of nearly 2.5 million children and nearly 200,000 mothers since 2008.

Acting USAID Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt joins Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and heads of delegations from around the world at the Call to Action Summit on Aug. 27 in New Delhi, India. / Clay Doherty, USAID

Acting USAID Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt joins Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and heads of delegations from around the world at the Call to Action Summit on Aug. 27 in New Delhi, India. / Clay Doherty, USAID

This week in New Delhi, I join health ministers from those priority countries and experts from across the globe for The Call to Action Summit to take stock of progress, share best practices and forge alliances.

Here are snapshots of some of USAID’s efforts around the world.

India

Like all mothers, Satyawati wants the best for her children, including for her newborn son. In a world where motherhood is still a risky endeavour, her story reflects the Indian Government’s new approach to maternal and child survival. With help from her local health worker, Satyawati knows how to best care for her children. She has had them vaccinated, and she practices proper hygiene at home.

Millions more have benefited from India’s recent efforts to reduce maternal and child deaths. In fact, under-5 mortality has dropped from 126 per thousand live births in 1990 to 53 per thousand live births in 2013. The government is using a scorecard to track its progress, providing transparency and accountability.

Malawi

“It’s heartbreaking to not have the equipment you can use on a baby to survive,” said Indira Chikomoni, a nurse at Zomba Central Hospital in Malawi. But with USAID’s support, 27 hospitals throughout Malawi now have access to a device called the Pumani bCPAP, which helps newborn babies breathe until their lungs have fully developed. The device has tripled the survival rate for babies treated for respiratory distress syndrome.

Gloria Mtawila’s son Joshua, who was struggling to breathe at birth, stayed on the machine for a month until eventually he could breathe on his own, and now he is a healthy baby boy.

Ethiopia

Adanech Belay is a proud mother of three, one of millions of rural families that used to live beyond the reach of the health system in Ethiopia. With USAID’s help, the Ethiopian Government has trained more than 38,000 health workers and deployed them around the country. Now, Belay can give birth in a clinic. She knows about vaccines, hygiene and family planning. Health extension workers now form the backbone of Ethiopia’s health care system, empowering families like hers to take charge of their own health. And the efforts are working.

In September 2013, Ethiopia announced it had achieved Millennium Development Goal 4—reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015—a full two years ahead of schedule. In 1990, Ethiopia’s under-5 mortality rate was one of the highest in the world at 204 for every 1,000 live births; by 2013, this rate had been slashed to 64 for every 1,000 live births.

Nepal

Until recently, three in 100 Nepali babies died before they were 1 month old, often from infections introduced into the body through the umbilical cord stump. In Nepal, where home delivery is common, a newborn’s umbilical cord has traditionally been cut with dirty household tools, and substances like oil, turmeric or even cow dung were rubbed on the stump to encourage “healing.”

All that is changing now with the support of USAID. With our partner JSI, we’ve helped develop a low-cost antiseptic gel we’re providing to pregnant women free of charge. A network of 50,000 female volunteer health workers are teaching communities how this little tube and new healthy practices can save their babies’ lives.


When a child dies, and when a mother dies giving birth, it is a tragedy for all of us. Because we miss out on everything they might have offered, and because it continues the cycle of extreme poverty that holds the entire world back. Together, we can break that cycle.

The goal of ending preventable child and maternal deaths is within our reach. We will continue Acting on the Call until every mother and child has the chance to lead a full, healthy life.

Q&A: The Legacy of West Africa’s Ebola Crisis

USAID’s Senior Ebola Coordinator Denise Rollins (right), Mission Director John Mark Winfield (second from right) and Bureau of Legislative and Public Affairs staffer Kate Alexander listen as a staff member of DuPort Road Clinic in Paynesville, Liberia speaks to them. / Jonta Williams, USAID

USAID’s Senior Ebola Coordinator Denise Rollins (right), Mission Director John Mark Winfield (second from right) and Bureau of Legislative and Public Affairs staffer Kate Alexander listen as a staff member of DuPort Road Clinic in Paynesville, Liberia speaks to them. / Jonta Williams, USAID

In this Q&A series, we are profiling the experts who have worked tirelessly to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa and are helping societies rebuild and strengthen health systems in the aftermath of the outbreak.

Denise Rollins, the senior coordinator of the Africa Ebola Unit, has worked at USAID for 28 years. She rejoined USAID in March after retiring last October because she felt a tremendous commitment to help those in need. She is USAID’s liaison coordinating with other U.S. Government agencies to help West African countries strengthen their ability to respond to future disasters.

What will the legacy of Ebola be in the countries affected by it?

Ebola has changed the lives of those affected by the virus and those who helped fight the disease. Ebola has left behind pain, sadness and death; we cannot keep our heads in the sand knowing what we now know about the disease.

However, as these countries get to and remain at zero, the international community will help build more enduring social and economic systems that will allow the countries to handle not only Ebola, but other infectious diseases, as well. We will once again see progress in health, agriculture, education and the overall economy. While Ebola leaves a legacy of caution and preparedness, it also gives us a future based on hope and resilience.

In July, USAID and other donor partners and governments gathered at the International Ebola Recovery Conference held at the UN. What are your thoughts on the conference?

The conference was a platform for representatives of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Mano River Union to outline their recovery strategies, and for the UN to foster a dialogue between the African countries and the donor community about recovery priorities and expectations.

Donors then pledged an unprecedented $3.4 billion in new funding, with the United States pledging $266 million, in addition to the $1.8 billion already provided for the response efforts. This brings the total pledged for response and recovery to more than $5.2 billion from the donor community.

This was a great step forward in a global call to action that will lead to the creation of more resilient societies in Africa.

What made the Ebola crisis different from past health crises?

The large number of people dying, the rapid spread of the virus, and an initial inability to treat patients made this crisis different. In terms of geography, Ebola reached bustling capitals and heavily populated cities, leading to a faster rate of transmission. Misunderstandings and lack of information about the disease also increased fear and panic, causing some victims to avoid reporting their illness. We have never seen a humanitarian public health crisis quite like this one.

What role has communications played in controlling Ebola?

Denise Rollins retired last October after working at USAID for 28 years, but when asked to return as senior coordinator for the Africa Ebola Unit, she said “yes” without hesitation. “I knew this was the right position for me,” she said. / Ellie Van Houtte, USAID

Denise Rollins retired last October after working at USAID for 28 years, but when asked to return as senior coordinator for the Africa Ebola Unit, she said “yes” without hesitation. “I knew this was the right position for me,” she said. / Ellie Van Houtte, USAID

Due to pre-existing issues with digital and communications infrastructure, it was hard to share information about the disease during the crisis. It was difficult to control the outbreak without accurate and timely information to detect Ebola, trace contacts of people who were infected, organize patients’ transport to treatment centers, and coordinate teams to conduct safe burials. Poor information hampered our ability to understand where the outbreak was occurring.

In Liberia, USAID sent a data logistician to serve on the Disaster Assistance Response Team to develop a better data sharing platform. He helped significantly reduce the time it took to get information from outlying areas to the capital. USAID is working with all three countries on improving data and communication technologies.

We are also strengthening public and private partnerships to bring low-cost Internet and mobile phone service to urban and lower-income, rural settings.

How are we helping to strengthen governance?

USAID is expanding the roles of community groups, NGOs and civil society to manage the effects of Ebola and more effectively work with the government to improve the quality of public services.

Our plan includes help with reopening schools, empowering civil society, and supporting open data policies and using technology for government services and information.

Interest in Ebola has been declining as the situation improves. Why are our response efforts still important?

The focus of the response continues to be ending the Ebola epidemic. While there is Ebola in West Africa, nothing prevents it from entering the United States, so this is a matter of national security.

In terms of the countries themselves, Ebola quickly damaged weak institutions, disrupted vulnerable communities and stymied health systems’ ability to address other infectious diseases or basic health care. We strive to rebuild and strengthen health systems there to enable societies to fend off future threats, while making sure those who’ve experienced setbacks can return to a path of prosperity.

These efforts are core to USAID’s mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies.

Amid the Ebola crisis, many stories have emerged describing heroic aid efforts and acts of bravery. What stories touched you most?

Access to education and the preservation of arts and culture are important to me, so I was heartened to hear stories of children in Sierra Leone eagerly tuning in to an education radio program; of an American artist who stuck photos of smiling health workers on their protective suits so patients could see who was underneath the mask; of actors, taxi drivers, traditional leaders and musicians working together to raise awareness and stop Ebola.

Providing Clean Water to Families Fleeing Violence in Central Darfur

Triangle Generation Humanitaire and community members worked together to build more than 1,150 emergency latrines. / Triangle Génération Humanitaire

Triangle Generation Humanitaire and community members worked together to build more than 1,150 emergency latrines. / Triangle Génération Humanitaire

“We just ask Allah: When will we be able to stay in one place and not be scared?” The words of Mohammed Omer, a 58-year-old unemployed farmer, echoed throughout the Sudanese village of Ammar Jaded in Central Darfur.

Mohammed didn’t always live in Ammar Jaded. He was a farmer, harvesting and selling his crops in the local markets of Dar El-Salam, where he lived with his two wives and 14 children. But when Mohammed’s village was raided and torn apart amid increasing tribal conflict, his family and thousands of others were forced to flee.

Mohammed and his family fled to Um Dukhun, another town in Central Darfur. But shortly after, Um Dukhun was also attacked by armed men. They looted the homes and set them on fire, leaving behind a path of destruction. Once again, Mohammed and his family were forced to uproot their lives.

Mohammed is now settled in Ammar Jaded, where he and thousands of others hope that they have found a safe and stable place to stay.

Mohammed talks of the struggle of continuously relocating his family due to the conflict between two tribes. “My kids now have no education, and we have lost everything: our cattle, our home, our land. All of this and we don’t even know what they are fighting about. What is the reason?”

In places like Sudan where the frontlines of the conflict are fluid and humanitarian needs are continually changing, USAID supports Rapid Response Funds to quickly address emerging needs. Through this fund, the International Organization for Migration in Sudan and Triangle Generation Humanitaire were able to bring clean water and sanitation practices to Ammar Jaded.

New wells like this one provide clean water to more than 29,000 people in Central Sudan.  / Triangle Generation Humanitaire

New wells like this one provide clean water to more than 29,000 people in Central Sudan. / Triangle Generation Humanitaire

Triangle Génération Humanitaire built more than 1,150 emergency latrines and dozens of handwashing stations, organized hygiene promotion campaigns, and distributed more than 1,000 hygiene kits. Campaigns to clear garbage were organized for thousands of people, and garbage collection dustbins were distributed throughout the villages.

To provide clean water for more than 29,000 people in Central Sudan, Triangle Generation Humanitaire also restored seven existing water points and constructed three new wells.

As a result of the tribal conflicts, more than 1.7 million people have been forced from their homes, leaving behind their land and cattle — along with their hopes for a brighter future. Mohammed explains his day-to-day struggle to take care of his children.

“Sometimes they eat, sometimes they don’t,” he says. “We used to drink very brown water before. My kids would get sicker and sicker, and I could not do anything about it because I have nothing left.”

But Mohammed says he was grateful even for the brown water because people in the outskirts of the village did not have access to water at all; they would dig underground near the dried up wells with the hope of finding water sources.

“For them, it was really bad. They would walk for 90 minutes to come further into the village to drink the dirty water. Now, thanks to this [Rapid Response Fund], everyone has access to clean, safe water, and [in] less than 15 minutes walking.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amani Osman is a Communications Officer for International Organization for Migration in Sudan.

World Humanitarian Day: Protracted Mega-crises Require New Solutions to Save Lives

Christmas miracle: Baby Josephine was released as the youngest Ebola survivor from a USAID-supported Ebola treatment unit in Liberia in December 2014. / Maya Baldouf, International Medical Corps

Christmas miracle: Baby Josephine was released as the youngest Ebola survivor from a USAID-supported Ebola treatment unit in Liberia in December 2014. / Maya Baldouf, International Medical Corps

Two days before Christmas 2014, 4-month-old Josephine was released from our partner International Medical Corps’ Ebola treatment unit in Bong County, Liberia — becoming the youngest Ebola survivor. Her head had been shaved to insert a life-saving IV drip, but her mother Korto — also an Ebola survivor — was all smiles as she took her baby home.

On a February night in Aleppo, Syria, Yousef Abo’s house was hit by a Scud missile. In a photo captured by one of our partners, you see Yousef standing by the rubble that was once his home, torn apart by the loss of his wife, two sons and two daughters.

These families’ stories reflect the suffering and hope that have defined and challenged the humanitarian system over the past year.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is an international public health crisis the likes of which the world had never seen before. Like the epidemiological charts that illustrate the curve of the disease, this crisis, too, will have a definite beginning, middle and end. It’s been a year since USAID deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team to West Africa to coordinate the U.S. Government’s response efforts. In that time, we succeeded in working closely with affected countries to stem the tide of the disease.

Liberia now has no Ebola cases, and new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea are at their lowest numbers since the start of the outbreak. A successful end to Ebola in West Africa looks increasingly near.

Yousef Abo stands at the exact spot in Aleppo, Syria, where a Scud missile destroyed his home and killed his entire family. / Pablo Tosco, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

Yousef Abo stands at the exact spot in Aleppo, Syria, where a Scud missile destroyed his home and killed his entire family. / Pablo Tosco, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

Syria, on the other hand, represents the grim reality of what has become the humanitarian system’s new normal: protracted mega-crises with no end in sight. The United Nations has classified Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen as “Level 3” emergencies, requiring a rapid scale-up of response efforts.

Violence and insecurity in these countries is causing a record number of internal and cross-border displacements, and aid workers are saving lives at great risk to their own. USAID disaster experts are working with our dedicated humanitarian partners to overcome significant obstacles and navigate fluid frontlines to deliver much-needed food, clean water, medical care and critical relief supplies. But absent a political solution, our aid can only do so much, and humanitarian needs will continue to escalate.

This is in stark contrast to a decade ago, when mega-disasters included the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Somalia famine and the Pakistan floods. The patterns of these disasters were more clearly defined: Many lives were lost, and people suffered, but there was a clear pattern of needs peaking and tapering off as these crises played out.

Ebola aside, today’s mega-crises show no signs of subsiding and conditions continue to deteriorate. In just over a decade, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid has more than doubled. The mega-emergencies we now face are man-made crises that are a product of today’s turbulent times.

In Syria—the worst humanitarian emergency of our era—the crisis has entered its fifth year with no signs of ending. Fighting rages on in South Sudan and Yemen where millions are now at risk of famine.

Ongoing conflict in South Sudan has forced more than 1.5 million people to flee their homes. Around the world there are now more people displaced by conflict than any other time in history. / Jacob Zocherman, The Danish Refugee Council

Ongoing conflict in South Sudan has forced more than 1.5 million people to flee their homes. Around the world there are now more people displaced by conflict than any other time in history. / Jacob Zocherman, The Danish Refugee Council

This, in turn, has placed enormous strain upon the humanitarian system and cast its weaknesses into stark relief. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently called attention to the “patchwork humanitarian system” struggling to handle today’s burden of crises. She said we need to think hard about how to reform and invent new solutions.

Next year, the United Nations will be holding its first-ever World Humanitarian Summit. The hope is that this will serve as a forum for change, where countries can come together with solutions to improve the humanitarian system to meet the challenges of today and the future. The stakes are high, and the U.S. Government is working hard to use the summit to advance serious reforms and innovations.

This disaster team in Liberia is one of five Disaster Assistance Response Teams simultaneously deployed by USAID to lead the U.S. Government response for the Ebola outbreak, the Nepal earthquake, and crises in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan. / Marco Rivera, USAID/OFDA

This disaster team in Liberia is one of five Disaster Assistance Response Teams simultaneously deployed by USAID to lead the U.S. Government response for the Ebola outbreak, the Nepal earthquake, and crises in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan. / Marco Rivera, USAID/OFDA

While crisis can bring out the worst in humanity, it also brings out the best in us — something that we celebrate today on World Humanitarian Day. Every year on Aug. 19 we honor the fallen UN relief workers who died in the 1993 bombing in Baghdad and pay tribute to aid workers around the world. It’s also an opportunity to look ahead to the future.

Today’s unparalleled challenges require new and innovative solutions. USAID is prepared to roll up its sleeves to show that the spirit of humanitarianism is still very much alive.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeremy Konyndyk is the director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

An Appeal for More Support for Youth Civic Engagement

Students in Jordan debate on a live TV show as part of the Ana Usharek and Usharek+ youth political participation program. / Haniyeh Dmour, National Democratic Institute

Students in Jordan debate on a live TV show as part of the Ana Usharek and Usharek+ youth political participation program. / Haniyeh Dmour, National Democratic Institute

The program carries a simple name, but a powerful purpose.

Since 2012, Ana Usharek — which means “I Participate” in Arabic — has brought together more than 11,000 young people across Jordan to take a leading role in promoting civic participation and engaging with government. This is noteworthy in a country where young people have limited opportunities to engage in public policy processes — despite representing about 70 percent of the population.

Through local advocacy initiatives and peer-led discussions on democracy and human rights, university and high school students are raising their voices on important issues at a critical period in their country’s history.

They’ve challenged the views of decision makers and members of parliament in roundtables and town hall meetings. They’ve visited local organizations, discussing such issues as the 2013 parliamentary elections, decentralization and political party laws.

Youth involved in Usharek+, the advanced student participation program, have led dozens of local advocacy initiatives addressing issues such as changing the university grading system as well as amending the Press and Publications Law.

It’s clear: Young changemakers, particularly when given opportunities and support, have the vision, imagination, energy, ability and persistence to help bring lasting, positive social change.

On International Youth Day, we are reminded that the international development community must build stronger partnerships with youth so they can not only meaningfully participate in development programs but also in important decision-making processes within their communities, nations, and at the global level.

Too often, youth participation efforts are narrowly focused on “youth” issues which frequently exclude broader societal concerns, as many older people think the young aren’t interested in “abstract” issues such as democracy.

But in-depth country studies, conducted by Restless Development, revealed that governance was the most important issue overall for the young people surveyed. And “an honest and responsive government” was listed among the top four concerns in the United Nation’s MyWorld2015 survey, whose respondents were overwhelmingly under 30.

In Nicaragua, partner organizations bring together hundreds of youth every year to foster democratic values and provide them with leadership skills. / Bartolomé Ibarra, National Democratic Institute

In Nicaragua, partner organizations bring together hundreds of youth every year to foster democratic values and provide them with leadership skills. / Bartolomé Ibarra, National Democratic Institute

But a few key impediments need to be addressed. For example, we need to create more meaningful opportunities to engage youth in civic issues, since adults frequently dominate existing channels for participation. In addition, we need to focus on educating youth about public policy issues and help them develop skills in critical thinking, public speaking and advocacy.

Most importantly, to counter apathy, we must help instill in young people the belief that their participation will indeed make a difference in the future of their country.  One way of doing this is to provide youth the opportunity to engage in efforts in which they can make a difference, and achieve at least a small degree of success.

These challenges are even greater among marginalized youth, such as young women, adolescent girls, LGBTI, indigenous youth, and youth who are disabled or are from minority ethnic groups.

The Ana Usharek and Usharek+ programs, both supported by USAID and implemented by our partner the National Democratic Institute, are tackling these challenges in Jordan and have built up the capacity of youth to engage in constructive dialogues on important public policy issues.

Similarly, USAID is working to enhance youth participation in political processes and other critical issues, including countering violence, promoting peacebuilding, and supporting inclusive, transparent and accountable governance in places such as Kosovo, Kenya, Nicaragua and Guatemala, among others. President Obama’s youth leadership programs, such as YALI, also play a critical role as they help generate support for youth participation.

As we celebrate International Youth Day, let’s reflect on the various ways in which we can support more meaningful youth civic participation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryanne Yerkes is a senior civil society and youth advisor in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.

Empowering Youth: Expanding Access to Reproductive Health

Youth face unique economic and social barriers to receiving family planning services, limiting their ability to make healthy choices about their reproductive health. USAID is committed to making youth’s aspirations a reality by expanding access to these services. / Neil Brandvold, USAID

Youth face unique economic and social barriers to receiving family planning services, limiting their ability to make healthy choices about their reproductive health. USAID is committed to making youth’s aspirations a reality by expanding access to these services. / Neil Brandvold, USAID

Like millions of women around the world, I want to help my children pursue the lives they dream of having. I want my younger child, a teenage girl, to have the same opportunities as the older one, a boy. I hope both of them will be treated fairly, regardless of their gender, as they acquire an education. I want them to develop the confidence to accomplish anything they strive for, and have every opportunity open to them.

As young adults, I want them to understand the importance of family planning so they are empowered to make good decisions. I hope they will wait to have a child until the time is right. If and when they decide to start families, I want them to be able to choose both the number of children they have and the timing and spacing of my grandchildren.

In my visits to USAID’s country programs, I’ve spoken with women across the globe — from Ethiopia to India — who want the same. What I want for my son and daughter are things that all young people deserve. Advancing youth’s access and understanding of family planning is not a “be all and end all” solution to poverty, inequity and poor health, but it’s still critical to ensuring healthy and fulfilling lives.

Yet too often, youth are underserved by family planning programs and reproductive health education, including HIV prevention. HIV and pregnancy-related complications are the major causes of death among youth worldwide. In many countries where USAID works, high levels of childbearing and an unmet need for contraception among adolescents are concerns.

Youth are not a homogenous population; their needs vary depending on their circumstances. In some areas, where there are social norms encouraging childbearing to prove fertility, married youth have a high unmet need for family planning. Young people outside urban areas are often overlooked by family planning programs and must travel long distances to find such services.

Why should we care? Expanding access to reproductive health services and information is vital to reducing inequality. When girls understand the importance of healthy timing and spacing, and when men and boys are engaged in family planning efforts, we are closer to achieving gender equality. Men and women’s equal investment in reproductive health strengthens families and improves the economic wellbeing of communities.

Maimouna Ba, the operator of a small reproductive health clinic in Senegal, explains the female condom to a university student. Local efforts of community members like Maimouna helps empower youth to make smart decisions about their reproductive health. / Benjamin Bynum

Maimouna Ba, the operator of a small reproductive health clinic in Senegal, explains the female condom to a university student. Local efforts of community members like Maimouna helps empower youth to make smart decisions about their reproductive health. / Benjamin Bynum

Making access available

USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health has prioritized youth, and the Agency as a whole is taking action to reach this underserved group.

USAID’s global flagship for strengthening family planning and reproductive health service delivery, Evidence 2 Action, is meeting the needs of young people by identifying, adopting and scaling evidence-based practices on a country-by-country basis. Similarly, USAID’s first dedicated cross-sectoral youth development project, YouthPower, aims to increase youth engagement in development and achieve positive outcomes across multiple sectors, including reproductive health.

USAID works with numerous partners to empower youth. In Senegal, a small reproductive health clinic, supported by USAID since 2012, provides services and counseling to university students in a safe and confidential setting. In Ukraine, a local NGO with its genesis in a former USAID-funded project called Together for Health mobilizes local youth to raise awareness of family planning and reproductive health issues, while dispelling common myths and misconceptions regarding contraception.

Youth account for more than 30 percent of the population in many developing countries. To harness the immense potential of the world’s young people, the global community must increase efforts to meaningfully involve youth in the decisions that impact their lives.

When we support young people’s aspirations and engage them in the global conversation on family planning, they better understand the importance of delaying the age when they have their first child and spacing pregnancies.

This not only will improve health outcomes, but will enable girls to remain in school, get jobs and meaningfully participate within their communities. Expanding educational and livelihood opportunities strengthens countries’ economies, while ending the cycle of poverty and making the world a better place.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen Starbird is the director of the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at USAID.

Championing Rights of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

K´iche´maya women in Guatemala show their inked fingers after voting. / Maureen Taft-Morales, USAID

K´iche´maya women in Guatemala show their inked fingers after voting. / Maureen Taft-Morales, USAID

In the early 1980s, I began traveling to remote areas of the world, where I was able to visit indigenous communities that were living in peace as well as communities under threat from logging, mining and oil extraction. What I saw and experienced taught me about the threats facing indigenous peoples and about the incredible resilience that they continue to demonstrate against overwhelming odds.

My real education began when I was asked by a group of indigenous leaders to help them get a voice in the 1992 Earth Summit. As we spent months going over the drafts of international agreements, word by word, I learned how indigenous peoples view these issues.

Organizational strengthening initiatives with the Misak people of Cauca, Colombia help recover traditional health practices and systemize an indigenous healthcare system that benefits a population of 21,000 people. / Katalina Morales, ACDI

Organizational strengthening initiatives with the Misak people of Cauca, Colombia help recover traditional health practices and systemize an indigenous healthcare system that benefits a population of 21,000 people. / Katalina Morales, ACDI

They value traditional knowledge in protecting biodiversity and responding to climate change, and argue that you can’t separate the question of territorial rights for indigenous peoples from environmental protection and sustainable development.

Sunday was the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. As USAID’s Advisor on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues, I join with others around the world in celebrating the achievements and commemorating the struggles of the world’s indigenous peoples. They are the guardians of the Earth’s biological diversity, stewards of the world’s remaining intact ecosystems and have a crucial role to play in finding our way forward to a more just, equitable and sustainable world.

Briane Keane in the indigenous Sapara community of Llanchamacocha, Ecuador. / Jose Proano, Land is Life

Briane Keane in the indigenous Sapara community of Llanchamacocha, Ecuador. / Jose Proano, Land is Life

Yet, globally, indigenous peoples face many development challenges as their culture and livelihoods come under increasing threat. They suffer from poorer health, are more likely to experience disability, and ultimately die younger than the rest of the population, according to the World Health Organization. Seen as obstacles to development and progress, some indigenous peoples have been forced off of their traditional territories, robbing them of their way of life and traditional livelihoods, such as farming or fishing.

Indigenous women and children are particularly hard hit by the structural inequalities that indigenous communities face around the world. Indigenous women are often denied access to education, basic health services, and economic opportunities, leaving them disproportionately vulnerable in the face of natural disasters and armed conflict. Many of the most widespread causes of death among indigenous children — such as malnutrition, diarrhea, parasitic infections, and tuberculosis — are preventable.

In Cabrália, Brazil, a member of the Pataxó indigenous group learns to use a mobile device through the Fishing with 3G Nets program. The cell phones enable fisherman to find and share information useful to their trade – even while out on the water. / IABS

In Cabrália, Brazil, a member of the Pataxó indigenous group learns to use a mobile device through the Fishing with 3G Nets program. The cell phones enable fisherman to find and share information useful to their trade – even while out on the water. / IABS

If we are to ensure that the health and well-being of indigenous peoples is part of an inclusive development agenda, we must promote their right to self-determination, as well as their rights to collective ownership of lands, resources, and knowledge. Violations of these fundamental rights are directly related to lack of food security, lack of access to sustainable livelihoods, and the disruption of community cohesion, which all lead to poor health and development outcomes.

Last September, the world’s governments and indigenous peoples gathered for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. In the outcome document of this historic event, governments made commitments to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples, outlining a path to build peace and promote human development.

A woman participating in an Ethiopian land revitalization project. / Brian Keane, USAID

A woman participating in an Ethiopian land revitalization project. / Brian Keane, USAID

The U.S. Government has elaborated on our commitment in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, recognizing that indigenous peoples play a pivotal role in promoting sustainable development and conservation, and fighting climate change. The concerns of indigenous peoples will be integrated in USAID and State Department policies and programs, and the U.S. Government will help them strengthen resource management strategies, legalize their territories and improve their livelihoods.  

As the world’s governments prepare to gather at United Nations headquarters in New York next month to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, it is critical that they remember the role of indigenous peoples as critical stakeholders in achieving these goals. Only with their participation and by recognizing and protecting their individual and collective rights, can we have development that is inclusive and sustainable.

The director of the Peruvian Forest Service listens to the leader of the National Federation of Peasant, Artisan, Indigenous, Native and Salaried Women-Arequipa. / Francisco Cruz, Chemonics International

The director of the Peruvian Forest Service listens to the leader of the National Federation of Peasant, Artisan, Indigenous, Native and Salaried Women-Arequipa. / Francisco Cruz, Chemonics International

Today, USAID joins indigenous peoples around the world in calling for the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Keane is the USAID Advisor on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues.

On the Job at USAID: Meeting An Amazing Global Health Hero

Dr. Suniti Solomon is pictured here in 2008 at the YRG Care Clinic, supported by USAID through the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, in India. / The Annenberg Foundation

Dr. Suniti Solomon is pictured here in 2008 at the YRG Care Clinic, supported by USAID through the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, in India. / The Annenberg Foundation

Sometimes, I hear the word “hero,” and I cringe. To me, the bar has to be pretty high to earn that title, so I’m careful to use the word, rather than throw it around thoughtlessly.

On July 28, in Chennai, India, the world that fights HIV lost a true hero – or heroine in this case. The headlines hit the international press: “Dr. Suniti Solomon, who woke India up to HIV threat, dies at 76.”

For the past week, I’ve read some of the many tributes to Dr. Solomon; a favorite was written by Michael Specter, a staff writer at The New Yorker who has written much about the AIDS pandemic.

He recounts an interview with this remarkable physician-scientist-researcher-humanitarian, when she told a story of the tragedy wrought by systemic stigma in the world of HIV and AIDS.

As a doctor, mother, wife and particularly humble humanitarian, this was what she railed against; she knew that stigma would be the force that would keep HIV underground, able to do irreparable damage to her beloved India.

Stigma allows HIV to kill like no other force really, and she was determined to spend the last 30 years of her life trying to overcome it.

At USAID, we are seriously fortunate to support a lot of remarkable people trying to find permanent solutions to really big problems like HIV and AIDS. It’s an amazing privilege afforded by the American people to approach these daunting issues that plague our fellow man.

In my three decades of working on the AIDS problem, and eight-plus years working at USAID, no single partner or investigator has affected me like Dr. Suniti Solomon.

As part of the Agency’s portfolio dedicated to finding an HIV vaccine—which one day will be added to the unparalleled efforts of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)—we supported Dr. Solomon’s clinic in educating vulnerable Indians to protect themselves against the virus, get tested and, if it was right for them, volunteer for an HIV vaccine trial.

We were certainly not alone in recognizing Dr. Solomon’s research capacity; she has been awarded many NIH grants which have provided a plethora of noteworthy scientific contributions. I remember being bowled-over the first time I visited and saw the volume of research charts in her clinic at YRG Care, the NGO she started in response to the needs of those who needed care, support, education and information about HIV awareness and prevention in India.

Dr. Suniti Solomon and Margaret McCluskey at the 5K Sunrise Walk for YRG Care in 2010 in Chennai, India. / International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), India

Dr. Suniti Solomon and Margaret McCluskey at the 5K Sunrise Walk for YRG Care in 2010 in Chennai, India. / International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), India

How lucky was I, a nurse who’s been at this fight against HIV and AIDS for decades, not only to conduct periodic site visits to Dr. Solomon’s clinic, but once to be seated beside her on a long flight back to Washington, D.C. She had a speaking engagement at the Indian Embassy to discuss her success in helping HIV-positive people become parents of uninfected children.

She shared many memorable stories in that transitory but intimate space. She spoke of taking blood samples of about 100 women awaiting incarceration for prostitution in 1986; six of them were confirmed HIV-positive by a friend’s lab at Johns Hopkins University. That proved despite widespread denial that HIV was a very real problem demanding immediate attention.

That we worked at Chicago’s public hospital, years apart, was incidental, but an engaging source of our conversation—she as a medical resident in pathology, and me as nurse in the Women and Children’s AIDS clinic, before we had much of anything to offer them.

On that flight, I listened intently. We laughed, we cried a bit, as she recently had lost her husband, one of India’s premier cardiovascular surgeons. We shared a lousy airplane meal, we napped a little and really enjoyed one another’s company.

Later, I would nervously cook my first genuine Indian cuisine and serve her on my best china in my dining room. Now, I’m looking back on what an honor it was to have supped with a real hero – to enable the work of a real hero – to be in the presence of a real hero. How lucky we are to be with people who really do make the world a better place.

Now, it is for us to carry on such a legacy and end AIDS.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret McCluskey is a Senior Technical Advisor in USAID’s Office of HIV/AIDS working on HIV vaccines. Follow her @m3indc.

Q&A: What A Year Without Polio in Nigeria Means

Since 1988, global efforts to eradicate polio have reduced the number of new cases by 99 percent, from 350,000 annually to a few dozen this year — preventing lifelong paralysis in millions of children worldwide.

In the fight to extinguish the disease, a significant milestone was reached on July 24. It has now been one year since the last reported case of wild polio in Nigeria.

Historically, Nigeria has been the main virus reservoir responsible for repeated outbreaks across the world. Just three years ago, the country seemed to be struggling in the battle against polio and recorded more than half of all global cases.

This achievement is the result of a Herculean effort to reach every child multiple times with the polio vaccine — thanks to the legions of volunteers, health workers, community leaders, mobilizers, lab staff, religious and traditional leaders, and millions of others.

However, since the wild polio virus can circulate silently, hiding in raw sewage for more than three years, it is far too soon for Nigeria to be complacent. The risk of undetected transmission remains in Nigeria and other vulnerable areas in and around conflict zones in Africa.

A health worker administers a polio vaccine to a girl in Nigeria. / Courtesy of TSCHIP

A health worker administers a polio vaccine to a girl in Nigeria. / Courtesy of TSCHIP

What is polio?

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by the wild polio virus. It spreads through contact with the stool of an infected person and droplets from a sneeze or cough. It invades the nervous system, and can cause paralysis or even death in a matter of hours. For thousands of years, polio was a leading cause of disability, arriving without warning and causing lifelong paralysis.

When will Africa be certified polio-free?

At least two more years must pass without a case of wild polio virus in Africa for the World Health Organization (WHO) to certify the region as polio-free. This will require continued government leadership across the African region, particularly in Nigeria, high quality immunization campaigns, and improved routine immunization, monitoring, and sustained vigilance.

We don’t want any cases of polio to go unnoticed or unreported. If Nigeria sustains high quality campaigns — maintaining population-level coverage (at least 90 percent of people), even in remote and hard-to-reach areas — and continues to improve routine immunizations, the virus will be stopped. Eradicating polio in all of Africa will bring us closer than ever to a world without the disease.

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When will the world be polio-free?

Polio will be stopped — but we need continued political will, quality immunization campaigns, stronger routine immunization, and active disease surveillance to make that happen. The world will be declared polio-free three years after the last polio case is identified.

What is USAID’s role in the global polio eradication effort?

The global effort to eradicate polio is spearheaded by Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), WHO, UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

USAID has played a critical role raising the importance of cross-border coordination, communication and the need for more women vaccinators. In fact, by working with local community organizations, women’s groups and self-help groups, the messages have gone well beyond polio to address other immunizations, water and sanitation, breastfeeding and handwashing.

Supported by USAID, countries are monitoring for cases in formal health facilities and in communities, providing the data to verify that immunization efforts are working. Increasingly, this network of disease surveillance officers is also searching for cases of other preventable diseases and working at the front lines during any disease outbreak or natural disaster. Our steady financial support and technical leadership has contributed to this success and laid the foundation for a lasting legacy.

How important are vaccines to global health?

Vaccines are one of the best buys in public health and global development — the cheapest, most lasting measure we have to save a child’s life. Vaccines protect us from 25 diseases, such as measles, whooping cough, polio and meningitis, and avert an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths each year.

Working closely with host country governments, ministries of health and finance, and in-country and global partners, USAID is bringing its financial, technical and diplomatic efforts to support country immunization programs and reach all children with critical safe vaccines.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellyn W. Ogden is the Worldwide Polio Eradication Coordinator for USAID and a Senior Technical Advisor for Health and Child Survival. She is responsible for the Agency’s polio eradication program and related immunization and disease control efforts in over 25 countries in Africa, South Asia and the Near East.
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