September 9, 2015

Empowering Youth: Expanding Access to Reproductive Health

Written by Ellen H. Starbird

This post originally appeared on USAID’s Impact blog here. Reposted with permission.

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.

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.

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