International Youth Day: Young Staff Members Share Their Experience
By Haripriya Vasudeva, Country Program Intern in India; Lulit Yonas Mengesha, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Intern and Youth Advisory Committee Member in Ethiopia; and Maïfoux Nassirou, Country Program Manager in Benin—with contributions from Amy Agarwal, Principal Writer and Editor, and Ana Aguilera, Director of Adolescent and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health
At EngenderHealth, we recognize young people as experts in their own lives and strive to engage them in participatory, inclusive, youth-centered approaches to ensure that our work truly responds to their needs and priorities. Our comprehensive adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights (AYSRHR) programs focus on ensuring that adolescent- and youth-friendly services are accessible, acceptable, affordable, equitable, appropriate, and effective. This International Youth Day, we are celebrating the passionate and powerful young people who drive our AYSRHR programs. Below we share the experiences of Haripriya Vasudeva in India, Lulit Yonas Mengesha in Ethiopia, and Maïfoux Nassirou in Benin—in their own words—as young people and as EngenderHealth staff.
Haripriya Vasudeva, Country Program Intern in India
It is still very fresh in my mind the memory of me pointing toward Stayfree packets (a popular brand of sanitary pads) and asking my mother why she used them. My mother’s reply would always be that she would tell me when I grow up a bit more. And finally, that day came! When I was 11 years old, I distinctly remember she gave me a demonstration of how to use a sanitary pad and told me if I see blood in my vagina, I should not panic as it’s a natural process of growing up as a woman. So, when I had my menarche at the age of 12, I did not panic. Thanks to my mom! Not only did this knowledge help me, but also my peers, as I shared this information with them. However, when I visited my grandmother’s home while menstruating, she would ask me to not touch anything as she believed I would make them impure. It would hurt and offend me, but in respect to her beliefs, I would follow it. I would try to explain to her about menstruation in a scientific way and tell her menstruation is nothing to feel ashamed about. Sadly, my grandmother is not alone; such a misconception about menstruation still prevails in our society. At school, I learned about puberty and the internal biological process of menstruation in biology when I was 14. But as far as menstrual hygiene and other sexual and reproductive health topics are concerned, these were not discussed in school or at home.
Even though India has made considerable progress in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), the fact that 7% of adolescents ages 10 to 19 already have a child/children or are currently pregnant and 17.8% of married adolescents ages 15 to 19 have an unmet need for family planning indicates that we have a long way to go to achieve adolescent wellbeing in the country. The good news is that the government has prioritized adolescent and youth development with Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), the national adolescent health program. The government also implements a menstrual hygiene promotion scheme that aims to increase awareness about menstrual hygiene, increase access to and use of high-quality sanitary napkins, and ensure safe disposal of sanitary napkins in an environmentally friendly manner for adolescent girls ages 10 to 19 years in rural areas.
Through the TARUNYA project, EngenderHealth works collaboratively with local organizations to support the state government in Bihar in operationalizing the RKSK program to reach some of the most marginalized communities to increase the knowledge and ability of adolescents to make decisions about their health, including their SRHR. This includes working across individual, family, and community structures to combat stigma around menstruation and menstrual health and normalize menstruation as a healthy part of growth and development. We do this through supporting peer educators who lead within their communities by facilitating adolescent group meetings, supporting adolescent health days, and referring their peers to adolescent-friendly health clinics. In partnership with state and district health authorities as well as adolescents themselves, the project has successfully operationalized 52 adolescent-friendly health clinics across three districts, and these are now safe spaces for adolescents with basic infrastructure and amenities and providing adolescent-friendly materials and services.
Lulit Yonas Mengesha, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Intern and Youth Advisory Committee Member in Ethiopia
Coming from a conservative society where talking about sexual and reproductive health issues is pretty much tabooed, I received very limited information about my reproductive health, changes I would experience as a teenager, and how to make safe decisions while going through puberty. I remember being a very confused young girl in school with so many questions but no one to ask. My fellow elementary and high school friends were equally confused, and we were coming up with our own theories of “how kids were born,” “what love and relationships really mean,” “what is a sexual relationship,” etc. Discussing these issues with parents was unthinkable, and our teachers told us to read the “uncomfortable topics in the curriculum” at home. Thinking back, I wish I had more information so I could make a better decision for my health, and this is where my passion to work on AYSRHR mainly arises.
It is not surprising that many numbers regarding the health outcomes of AYSRHR in Ethiopia come out disappointing, with little to no SRHR education formally provided to the adolescent and youth in the country. There are, however, some promising changes over the last 20 years. AYSRHR has been mainstreamed into the national agenda through policies and strategies directly addressing unintended pregnancy and childbearing, maternal mortality, HIV and AIDS, child marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, and violence against women and girls. One of these is the National Adolescent and Youth Health Strategy, which keenly recognizes AYSRHR. The overall prevalence rate of child marriage in Ethiopia has dropped by a third in the last 10 years, and the proportion of married adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 years decreased by at least 6 percentage points from 2000 to 2016. Despite that, adolescent childbearing remains at 12.6%, and sexual debut for women of reproductive age at 16.6 years. What has been done so far to improve AYSRHR in Ethiopia is only the tip of the iceberg, and multisectoral and innovative approaches are going to be necessary to ensure the SRHR young people deserve.
EngenderHealth engages young people in Ethiopia in meaningful ways to ensure they can make voluntary, informed decisions about their SRHR and take part in activities that disseminate AYSRHR awareness to other young people while creating a conducive environment to access the care they need to lead healthy lives. It does this through its youth advisory committee, composed of adolescents and youth. By building the capacity of its members (like me!), it enables the young people to be able to represent the youth and contribute their views and perspectives to shape the programs in ways that addresses their AYSRHR needs the best. Through the A’ago project, EngenderHealth and its partners established 38 youth groups to serve as major entry points to raise the level of SRHR awareness and reached more than 130,000 community members through SRHR messages (of which 24.8% were younger than 20 years old). The same project has also managed to provide SRHR services to young people and facilitated service linkages through a mobile-based digital platform called TIKO.
Maïfoux Nassirou, Country Program Manager in Benin
I have a strong passion for AYSRHR issues and have enjoyed talking to young people over the years to learn about their needs and then addressing those needs in a context where I had no reliable source of information at the time. A famous newspaper called Love & Life, which was distributed free of charge at the time, was my only source of information because at no time did our parents talk to us about sexuality. It was a really taboo subject with the parents, and it remains so to this day.
The majority of Benin’s population is made up of young people—two out of three Beninese are under 25 years old. While this youthful population is a great asset, it also brings with it many challenges in terms of sexual and reproductive health. For example, 62% of women aged 15 to 24 (and 39% of men) had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 18, in a context of low use of modern methods of contraception (12%), resulting in a relatively high fertility rate of 5.7 children per woman. Benin stands out from most countries in West Africa, with a clearly stated political will to make women’s rights and welfare a priority for government action, which has recently resulted in the adoption and promulgation of several laws considered very progressive by stakeholders. However, social norms do not favor the full enjoyment of SRHR. Only 36% of women in union participate in decisions related to their own health, and 32% of women aged 15 to 49 think it is justified for a man to beat his wife for at least one of the following reasons: she burns food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses to have sex with him (among men aged 15 to 49, this percentage is 16).
To empower women, reduce the incidence of adolescent pregnancy, and increase access to SRHR services, EngenderHealth has been leading innovative projects and partnerships in Benin since 2019. The Building Equitable Partnerships with Youth-Led Organizations (YLOs) in West and Central Africa to Advance SRHR and Eliminate Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) project uses an equitable partnerships approach with YLOs in Benin, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire. The project is assisting YLOs in identifying their needs and providing responsive technical and financial support to implement action plans that focus on the SRHR needs of young people. In Benin, the action plan included activities to improve care for SGBV survivors through: (1) training judicial and police officers, (2) strengthening girls’ and women’s access to health services, including family planning, through an approach that challenged negative notions of masculinity, and (3) strengthening feminist actions in the community. The project has also provided training in SRHR, gender-transformative approaches, and related topics for 52 young leaders aged 18 to 30 (73% of whom are female), who in turn shared their learnings with 1,305 other YLO members and volunteers across West and Central Africa. Our work in the region also includes mobilizing a partnership among feminist organizations to increase awareness of and address the many SGBV issues common in the region.
Share Your Story
We want to hear from you! What was your experience like as an adolescent seeking health information and care? What are you doing today to ensure all adolescents and youth are able to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and access the care and support they need? Share your story with us on Twitter @EngenderHealth and help inspire more young people with us!