Young People Must Be Listened To

These seed grants were funded by Johnson & Johnson and WomanCare Global via the Women Deliver C Exchange Youth Initiative.

By: Nargis Shirazi, FRESH Campaign (Uganda)

What does it mean to be fully and richly empowered about sexual health? Is it having adequate comprehensive information about sexual reproductive health and rights? Is it about changing behavior based on the knowledge of harmful sexual practices? Is it having access to sexual reproductive health services? Or could it be the government making the conditions in the country favorable to accessing sexual health information and services? We have been asking ourselves these questions on the FRESH social media platform. We want to know how effective the platform is – how many people it is reaching and is it influencing behavior.

Musa, a 20-year-old man who has sex with older women, reads our tweets. He is at one of the local universities and says that he enjoys reading the tweets because we demystify myths and also educate on male and female condom use. When asked whether or not he uses condoms, he says it depends. If the woman wants to use a condom he will and if not, he will not. The money dictates the means. This mentality has crippled healthy seeking behavior.

I asked him whether or not such platforms, like the FRESH campaign, are important. He said that they are! He said that the online platform provides a non-judgmental and safe place to ask and receive information. Along with information from service providers, the platform also gives youth a platform to discuss issues and contemplate their behavior.

It is important for young people to have an open platform to discuss issues that affect them without any judgment. It is also important for young people to share the information they have received. The only problem is that it is difficult to measure the impact of the social media platform on behavior change.

Another challenge is reaching youth who do not have access to the internet. The original goal of the project was to involve just urban youth, but there are young people living in rural and slum areas that need to receive the same information. To reach them, we started the FRESH clubs - where young people can meet and discuss these very topics. I have also learned how important partnerships are because as we generate messages, organizations that work in hard-to-reach areas can use the online discussions to speak with the youth who have no access to the internet.

I managed to travel to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly and I spoke about the online platform countless times. I spoke on one high-level panel that included important dignitaries. There were four sessions during the event, and I spoke during the last one. I was disturbed to see that I was the only young person that spoke that afternoon. Not only that, but I also spoke at the end, when many important people had already left!

Events like this are meant to be an avenue where young people can share what their thoughts on sexual and reproductive health and rights and the need to include young people in the post-2015 development agenda. Bur how can we be heard and share stories from our work when the invited space becomes an empty space? When the leaders, policy makers and world changers are not present? It is a challenge. We cannot be a part of the solution if we are not made a priority! One of our biggest challenges at FRESH is influencing policy as well as people’s behavior. Having a platform to raise people's voices does not necessarily mean that we are being heard!

At FRESH, our next focus is to take advocacy a notch higher. We must take young people’s voices to a place where our presence will be a priority. We can only make progress in the uptake of family planning and reduce the rates of unsafe abortion among young girls when we choose to listen to young people’s voices and heed their call to action!

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