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Youth Say Coca-Cola Is Easier to Find Than Condoms

Young Bangladeshi women raise their fists at a protest in Shahbagh. Credit: Kajal Hazra/IPS

KUALA LUMPUR, May 29 2013 (IPS) - “If I am thirsty and want a bottle of Coca-Cola I can get it, no matter where in the world I am. Why can’t I get contraceptives or sexual heathcare?” asked Carlos Jimmy Macazana Quispe, a youth representative from Peru currently in Kuala Lumpur for the third edition of the Women Deliver global conference on the “health and well-being of women and girls.”

A member of the Lima-based Instituto Peruano de Paternidad Responsable (INPPARES), a non-profit organisation that helps young Peruvians learn about sexual and reproductive rights, Quispe was expressing frustration that 36 percent of sexually active Peruvians – the majority of them youth – do not have access to contraceptives.

There are over a hundred youth like Quispe participating in the three-day conference that started on May 28, most of them from developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where “contraceptives” are equated with condoms, teen pregnancy is on the rise and child marriage is often considered a social norm.

One of these ambassadors is Shreejana Bajracharya, a youth consultant from the Nepal-based Ipas, an NGO working to prevent deaths and disease from unsafe abortions in a country where 21 percent of all mothers are aged below 18 years.

Bajrachayra, who counsels young married and unmarried women factory workers about safe sex, says that over 80 percent of sexually active young women practice unsafe sex and risk pregnancy because they fear that contraceptives could cause them physical harm.

“I meet youth who tell me that…(birth control) pills could damage their kidneys or their heart,” she told IPS, adding incredulously: “And these are women who live in the capital (Kathmandu). If awareness levels in the capital are so low, imagine what youth in rural areas are experiencing.”

According to Pablo Aguilera, head of the New York-based HIV Young Leaders Fund, the situation is particularly bad for minority communities like those who identify as transgender, or people living with HIV/AIDS.

Aguilera, himself a young person living with HIV, identified two simultaneous problems: not only are at-risk populations unaware of the most basic information regarding safe sex and reproductive health, but they are also unaccounted for, passing under the radar of surveys or other attempts to identify target populations.

“We need to engage more youth from marginalised and stigmatised communities, such as transgender (people),” he told IPS, adding that vulnerable youth must be included in studies and surveys “not as interviewees but as interviewer. This will not only help them receive information firsthand, but will also sensitise them on the issue instantly.”

Leading experts in the field are keenly aware of the need to step up efforts. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), admits that there is a lack of hard data on sexual and reproductive health, but says the UNFPA is helping government agencies across the world recognise the need to overcome this.

Even in cases where data exists, governments do not utilise it for “practical purposes such as planning, and that is a big challenge,” Osotimehin told IPS.

Jyoti Shreshtha, a post-graduate student from Kathmandu, says the Nepali government “does not make a conscious effort to educate” youth on issues like HIV/AIDS and sexual rights.

In countries like Bangladesh, says student leader Umme Mahbuba, events and conferences around pregnancy, early motherhood, safe sex and contraceptives are targeted mostly at professionals, experts or academics. “Youth often stay away from these forums thinking ‘this issue is not for me’,” Mahbuba told IPS.

This can be attributed partly to the jargon that surrounds conversations about sexual health. According to Faustina Fynn-Nyame, country director for Marie Stopes International (MSI) in Ghana, young people are put off by “incomprehensible literature” and terms like “family planning”, which they cannot identify with.

“There is a need to take communication more seriously and coin terms that are youth-friendly,” she said.

But none of these tactics on youth engagement will go far without massive investment in this global effort.

“There is an urgent need to invest more (in)…creating effective tools of communication and building communication skills,” said Aguilera.

Some countries are feeling the financial crunch more than others. Sinthuka Vive, a student from the war-ravaged town of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, says the state is struggling to fund reproductive health services.

“During the war, many hospitals were damaged,” she told IPS. “The few that survived are struggling to provide care to married women. Youth, meanwhile, have nowhere to go, no one to provide them with counseling or information.”

The issue of funds has been a major topic of debate at the conference underway in Malaysia, particularly with regards to promises made at the July 2012 London Summit on Family Planning, where global leaders pledged a total of 2.6 billion dollars to provide 120 million more women and girls in the world’s poorest countries with voluntary access to contraceptive services, supplies and information by 2020.

It remains to be seen whether or not these funds will be leveraged to improve the sexual health and reproductive rights of youth around the world.

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his pretty little burden by nicci harris