Thursday marked the first day of the Women Deliver conference here in London, England. At first glance, the conference appeared to be a haven as it is filled with delegates and ministers from over 100 different countries. However, this impression was soon shattered after attending the opening plenary. There, I was sad to see that there was no youth voice among the speakers and that there was no clear inclusion of youth programs in the overall conference.
Additionally, for a conference that is focused on women's maternal health and sexual reproductive rights, there is a lack of focus and recognition of the importance of the rights of young girls. Why is there only a focus on adult women when pregnancy is the leading cause of death for young women ages 15 through 19 in developing countries? And when girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy or child birth than those over age 20? Furthermore, infants of adolescent mothers are more likely to die before their first birthday than are the infants of older mothers. Issues affecting young girls–such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and fistula–should have been included, but were sadly missing from the broader discussion of maternal health.
While I applaud the conference for including a youth panel on the first day, I was disheartened to see that of the approximate 2,000 conference attendees, only about 20 or so attended the “Coming of Age” panel that consisted of seven youth advocates and peer educators. The youth speakers discussed how youth are denied basic human rights and, therefore, other rights such as sexual and reproductive rights and maternal rights are not provided to young people. I had hoped that more of the delegates, ministers and senior executives of NGOs working on policy issues would have attended the program and listened to the young people’s opinions. Youth participation was high on the agenda of all the panel speakers who voiced the need for more youth to be empowered and given the opportunity to speak for themselves rather than having disproportionate numbers of adults speaking on our behalf. It seems as though everyone states that youth issues are on their agenda. I challenge the conference participants to prove that such statements are more than just rhetoric by taking action to include young people meaningfully and supporting their right to plan a family and their future.