Making Youth Participation Real

Much is talked about how youth participation is an important asset on the response to the spread of HIV, or about how youth are a key population to target prevention efforts, considering that roughly half of the new HIV cases are in people under 25 years old. Even more, debates on issues such as whether schools should have comprehensive sexuality education programs or Middle Ages-styled chastity seminars are an everyday topic in the current political debate. We can even say that youth are starting to become an economically relevant group in developed countries, where an important burden of the health care costs of the aging populations will have to be shouldered by a smaller active workforce.

However, there are some issues that continue to stay unmentioned, except for youth activists that make efforts to bring them to the table. Not only governments, but also civil society organizations should reread some of the commitments undertaken at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 (ICPD), such as the following paragraph:

ICPD Para. 6.15 Youth should be actively involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation of development activities that have a direct impact on their daily lives. This is especially important with respect to information, education and communication activities and services concerning reproductive and sexual health, including the prevention of early pregnancies, sex education and the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Since I consider myself to be a youth activist (although already 26), I may be biased in considering this paragraph important. However, I think it is fair to say that it is probably one of the most neglected commitments on the Cairo agenda, and at the same time one of the most important, since by definition it implies a look into the future and how to get ready for it.

Youth participation not only increases the knowledge and skills of the young people who get involved, but also increases self esteem and creates commitment towards our goals as societies. The result on development intervention programs and policies is that they are better focused on the target populations, include a broader understanding of the "real world" where they are supposed to be effective and provide a new source of information and data that may be analyzed during monitoring and evaluation. The list of benefits from youth participation is endless.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) has more than 140 Member Associations working in more than 180 countries, and has taken seriously the commitment that was undertaken—not only by governments, but also by civil society at ICPD. Youth participation has been institutionalized, and the Governing Council of IPPF has a minimum of 20% youth participants (who at the time of election are under 25 years old).

At a more local level, the Western Hemisphere Region of IPPF (IPPF/WHR) has been undergoing a careful process in the past years of restructuring its policies in order to open spaces for meaningful youth participation, and currently has a 20% youth participation rate in its regional Board of Directors. Considering that these changes mean little if they are not replicated at the country level, the more than 40 associations in the Western Hemisphere Region (which includes all countries in the Americas and the Caribbean) are all institutionalizing youth participation, with several of them already engaging youth under 25 years old in their respective Boards of Directors. By 2008, approximately 30% of the Regional Council of IPPF/WHR, its main governing body, will be youth participants.

The process has not been easy. A period of adjustment has been necessary in order to create the partnerships between adults and young people that are the essence of youth participation. However, nobody thought ICPD commitments were going to be easy, only that they were the right thing to strive for. Much work needs to be done to make youth participation effective and genuine, and avoid tokenism. Flexibility in schedules must be present in order to allow youth to attend meetings after school or university, provisions for expenses of transportation must be made to allow for participation of anyone regardless of economic status, and of course, time must be dedicated to training the young people who are just starting to get involved. However, the most crucial thing is the institutionalization of youth participation, making it a right to participate, not a charitable gift. The partnerships that have been developed at IPPF have proved enriching, both to the young people who benefit from the experience and knowledge of adults, as for the adults who may find new ideas and energy in the creativeness and enthusiasm of the youth they are partnering with.

The latter of course does not mean that grassroots work has been weakened—on the contrary! Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, IPPF and its Member Associations provide more than 18 million services a year, and thousands of youth volunteers walk the streets of their communities providing valuable information and empowering their peers to take control of their lives and being able to live them in a responsible and fulfilling manner. But most important of all, policies like these ensure one thing: there will be someone to keep fighting for sexual and reproductive rights, and, just like at the beginning, IPPF will remain as brave and active as ever.

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