Engaging young people in family planning programs and advocacy is essential to achieving the Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) goal of enabling 120 million more women and girls to have voluntary access to contraceptives by 2020. That is why the family planning community tapped the talent of young leaders this week to mark World Contraception Day, an annual event designed to increase awareness of contraceptive methods.
Why is it so important to engage youth? For one thing, the world’s population of young people (between the ages of 10 and 24) is at a historic high, with the majority—nearly 90%—living in the developing world (UNFPA). We know that approximately 16 million adolescent girls (15 and 19 years old), mostly in low- and middle-income countries, give birth each year; complications during pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for girls in this age range (WHO). We know adolescent girls who become pregnant often drop out of school, losing their chance to develop marketable skills and obtain good employment; this impacts the economic growth of girls and their families, their communities and their countries (WHO) And we know that contraceptive use among women 15 to 24 years old is only 22%, while that of women over 30 is 60% (UNFPA).
It is one thing to know the statistics, but is another to actually hear the stories of the young people behind them. Last week the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health hosted a group of outstanding family planning advocates, none older than 40. They were a select group of the 40 winners of 120 Under 40, a competition that the Gates Institute launched last year to shine a spotlight on young family planning champions worldwide.
These young people traveled from South Africa and the Philippines, India and Great Britain, to the US for 3 days of training, panel discussions, and celebrations, with a consistent ribbon of storytelling throughout all the activities. On the first day, the winners took part in a workshop called “The Power and Principles of Personal Storytelling,” led by Laura Wexler of the Stoop Storytelling Series that features “ordinary” people sharing true, personal stories onstage. She gave the winners a toolkit of techniques to draw on when sharing their personal reasons for focusing on family planning. Then, throughout the week, each winner had the opportunity to share his or her story in a formal setting, and was interviewed for the Family Planning Voices project.
Brian Mutebi, a 33-year-old Ugandan journalist with The Daily Monitor, talked about his covert efforts to help a young unmarried cousin who was rejected by the family once she became pregnant. This experience—in addition to the death of his mother from complications of HIV when Brian was just 10 years old—spurred him to devote his life to helping girls and women. The first in his village to graduate from college, Mutebi became a journalist who covers reproductive health and rights and the founder of an organization called Education & Development Opportunity – Uganda, which administers the Brian Mutebi Dream Scholarship Fund for teenage mothers and survivors of gender-based violence.
Burcu Bozkurt, a 26-year-old US-based native of Turkey, shared the story of her grandmother, who was so determined to provide a better life for her children that she defied her husband’s desire to pull their 2 daughters out of school to stay at home. Burcu, a co-founder of the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning, called this her “change-maker moment,” the moment that set her life’s course. “My grandmother used her voice to protect my mom’s future, to protect my future. … Think about your change-maker moment. Think about where you are today, and when someone used their voice to protect and preserve your ability to get educated, to thrive, to plan.”
When we launched 120 Under 40 last year, our goal was to begin passing the torch from us “gray hairs” to the next generation of leaders. There has been concern that as the older cohort is aging out of the field, there may not be a critical mass of up-and-coming leaders to take over. 120 Under 40 gives us a way to draw attention to these young leaders driving the field forward, and to provide them with a platform for their voice and a grant of $1,000 to continue their work. This project has proven that there are many young people making great strides in the name of increased access to reproductive health and wellbeing for women, men, and adolescents. I don’t doubt that the future of family planning is in good hands.
Jose G. “Oying” Rimon II is director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health and senior scientist, Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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