In December, the Journal of Adolescent Health launched a special edition containing six review papers related to the progress made in the last 20 years in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights for adolescents. This special edition was coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Women’s Health Coalition, together with the United Nations (U.N.) Planning Fund.
Ms. Laura Villa-Torres, doctoral student in the health behavior department of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and her colleague Dr. Joar Svanemyr, an independent consultant in Oslo, Norway, participated in this effort with “Ensuring Youth’s Right to Participation and Promotion of Youth Leadership in the Development of Sexual and Reproductive Health Policies and Programs,” a paper specifically devoted to youth participation.
Ms. Villa-Torres and Dr. Svanemyr searched databases to assess existing research, summarize models and frameworks, and describe approaches for moving forward on adopting youth participation in developing policies and programs on sexual and reproductive health.
In their research, the authors learned that “youth” is defined differently across cultures. The U.N. defines “young people” as between the ages of 10 and 24 years old and “adolescents” as ages 10 to 19. However, various social and political factors shift those boundaries. High-income groups tend to delay marriage, childbearing and adulthood, while those affected by poverty, unemployment, education deficiencies, violence, HIV and other challenges tend to transition more quickly from childhood to adulthood.
Since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, youth participation in policy making and programs has flourished worldwide. Although experts assumed that peer education programs would be the most effective, Ms. Villa-Torres’ research showed otherwise. Many such interventions deliver adult-driven messages and relegate youth to less meaningful participation. Improving recruitment, training and mentoring could have greater impact.
Ms. Villa-Torres also discovered that having a youth program within an organization does not guarantee youth participation. Organizations should evaluate whether youth are integrated and contributing meaningfully to the work and point out barriers to significant involvement.
The goal of youth participation, Ms. Villa-Torres noted, is to improve outcomes (impact indicators) and participation (process indicators). Both impact and process must be monitored to insure the meaningful participation of youth. Adult attitudes toward young people come into play. Community-based participatory research methodologies could be a good avenue to promote active and meaningful adolescent and youth participation.
Ms. Villa-Torres believes that youth participation in program and policy development should be a priority, because participation is a basic human right, and she urges the adoption of innovative practices for involving you in sexual and reproductive health programs.
Other papers in the special supplement cover the topics of enabling environments for sexual and reproductive health and rights, sexuality education, sexual and reproductive health services and prevention of intimate and sexual violence.