Last week, the Irish Family Planning Association held that country's first ever Young Decision Makers' (YDM) conference in Dublin. Following a model established in successful YDM meetings in Portugal, Spain, and Finland, the Irish YDM marks a two-front effort to scale up advocacy for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in a country that has traditionally been seen as a bit behind on these issues (especially when compared to other countries on the continent).
First, the YDM model serves to mobilize young decision makers—members of political parties, those holding elected positions, and other well-situated advocates—at the country level to advocate for better national policies on a wide array of SRHR issues. Given the age of these advocates, policies affecting youth are naturally prominent, if not paramount, on the agenda.
Second, the YDM meetings are explicitly coordinated to bridge concern about national issues to equal concern with the role of governments as donors in promoting and prioritizing SRHR in developing parts of the world. This is, of course, all the more important in the current global climate as U.S. shenanigans that undermine SRHR at every turn mean we've got to rely on other donor countries to fill the decency gap. Consider the lackluster support by the U.S. for condoms in combating HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa—that gap becomes a public health nightmare that other donors must repair.
Youth issues are particularly crucial for the Irish as more than 1/3 of their population is under the age of 25 (larger than the European Union average of about 29 percent). And, the time may be right for change. The law currently makes all sex under the age of 17 illegal (of course, it is worth mentioning that most teens in Ireland initiate sex at or before 16 years of age, thus this "crime" is pervasive on the Emerald Isle). A recent Supreme Court decision, however, means that this law must be reconsidered.
Thankfully, along with the fertile ground for a realistic change in outdated laws, Ireland's approach to sex education is more progressive than most might think. In 1995, Ireland instituted a nationwide program called Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) which aimed to "promote an understanding of sexuality" and "healthy attitudes and values toward their sexuality in a moral, spiritual and social framework." The language itself is startling, particularly for Americans who cannot even get new, supposedly progressive, Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress to drop the tired mantra of teen pregnancy prevention as the rationale for why young people need sexuality information. The Irish are light years ahead.
The program is not perfect, however. Research released earlier this year which was presented at the conference, sheds light on the fact that RSE's implementation is falling short of desired outcomes. Problems of oversight on implementation, poor teacher training, and the universal scourge of discomfort in addressing sexuality issues with young people, remain significant obstacles. Yet, Ireland's national program far surpasses anything we have in the United States and makes the Bush administration's promotion of abstinence-only programs look appropriately like 18th century thinking. And, surprise, surprise: participants at the YDM reported that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are gaining access to Irish schools and providing incorrect and religiously themed programs.
The young decision makers gathered in Dublin last week also spoke about the need for basic reproductive health care services, including legal abortion. Advocates in Ireland continue to battle for the right to choose and a new innovative campaign, Safe and Legal, has been launched to galvanize and magnify these efforts.
One thing that struck me in Ireland and that was raised at the YDM was the issue of access to condoms. It is not that they cannot be found. This American likes a pint of Guinness as much as any Irishman and in each pub I ventured into, condom machines were in each of the restrooms (or the jacks, as they call them). The issue in the urban areas is thus not so much access as it is price (though access and price are issues outside of urban hubs). The price of a condom in the average pub is about 4 Euros—about the same price as an additional pint. That's a problem. Cost is high in pharmacies as well. Part of this problem is that condoms are taxed as a luxury item in Ireland which means they cost 10 to 20 percent more than they should. The YDM shed light on this and a change in the rate of taxation on condoms, at a minimum, is essential.
Going forward, the young decision makers gathered in Ireland will be creating a statement of priorities to move country-level policy. With the creation of an organized group of young decision makers in the country, these priorities have an actualizing element that can make a difference. European countries need these types of groups in this important time of transition and expansion of the European Union. Indeed, other counter forces are at work in countries like Poland and in Brussels to turn back the clock on SRHR. Let's make sure they don't get a free ride.