Young Leaders call for training, data, and more than just a spot at the table to improve adolescent health

Sarah Lindsay

Senior Technical Officer

“Age is not an issue when it comes to experience and knowledge,” Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver stated at Youth Lead: Setting Priorities for Adolescent Health. The World Health Assembly side event wrapped up almost two weeks of young leaders sharing their experience and knowledge in Geneva at global consultations of health agendas and the creation of the new Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health.

The May 19 event, co-sponsored by the LMG Project, Women Deliver, the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, the White Ribbon Alliancethe World YWCA, and the International Federation of Medical Students' Associations (IFMSA), brought together young leaders from around the world as well as representatives from INGOs and multilateral organizations. Through a dynamic discussion on how to ensure meaningful youth participation to improve health outcomes for adolescents, three main themes emerged.

Providing youth-friendly services is easier said than done

Adolescents often slip through the cracks at health clinics and providers have difficulty meeting their special health needs. “Adolescents have health issues specific to them, not children or adults. We need health professionals to learn how to address unique adolescent health issues. Additionally, as adolescents, you’re not necessarily rights bearers - you do what you’re told. Health professionals also need to be trained on respecting rights,” said Meggie Mwoka, Regional Coordinator for Africa for IFMSA.

Daniel Tobón García agreed, “I have to keep in mind that adolescent health issues are not traditional in the health sector.  To have youth friendly services, you need several factors: adaptable facilities, delivering services in an approachable way, and community mobilization. Even when there are youth-friendly services, there’s little evidence on how to engage young people to come and use the services.”

Data, data, data!

How can services be tailored to adolescents? Mwoka told the audience, “We need data to inform policies so they make sense, so they fulfill needs. When someone asks: Why do we have 12 health centers in this area? There should be data showing that we do need these 12 health centers.”

Data is also important to keep young people informed and able to hold their leaders - community and international ones - accountable. Jane Ferguson shared that the World Health Organization (WHO) is currently developing a scorecard for young people to measure health outcomes at the community level as a tool for participation. “Young people themselves have a better understanding of the determinants of their health, like the coverage of services. And using the scorecard, they can feed that into their communities and to governments,” Ferguson said.

New technology makes data collection easier, leaving us no excuses for the data dearth. William Yeung of the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre said, “The increase of smartphones can help us gather data on basically anything and obtain valuable information to analyze correlation and create new innovations. “

Combatting Tokenism: Providing space for young people to be heard but also for adults to listen

Ibil Surya, the National Youth Representative at the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association, told the audience that “it would be more effective if the government can ask young people directly and involve young people in making decisions for adolescent health.” All panelists agreed that young people’s participation is important, but many get hung up trying to go beyond token participation.

“How do we make youth participation meaningful?” Heather Barclay, Advocacy Officer at the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) asked.  “As adults, we need to give people a reason to speak to us. It’s not just giving young people the space to speak, but it’s about giving us the place to listen. We want to hear you.“

Caitlin Chandler, Program Officer at the Global Fund agreed with Barclay sharing that the Global Fund is currently working on a tool to help young people get involved because they recognize that “engaging youth constituency can lead to more effective programming.”

But the onus is beyond the organizations and adult allies, “It’s up to us to take ownership of what we said. We need to follow up and hold people accountable, if we show commitment, we can combat tokenism,” said Mwoka.

Closing the side event, Kelly Thompson, Liaison Officer for Reproductive Health at IFMSA, shared the key message, “Knowledge is power. We heard a lot about young people leading amazing work, but that information isn’t transferred. This is a Call to Action for young people to get out there and talk to adult partners, and for adult partners to fully utilize young people’s knowledge to improve adolescent health.”

Photo 1 from left: Ibil Surya, William Yeung, and Meggie Mwoka. Photo Credit: Brigid Boettler

Photo 2 from left: Health Barclay, Jane Ferguson, Linnea Hakansson, Caitlin Chandler, and Cecilia García Ruiz. Photo Credit: Brigid Boettler