Friday, May 9, 2014

Speaking up for young people's sexual health

Yang Yu, 22-year-old student and coordinator of China Youth Network
© UNICEF EAPRO/2014/Hyunjeong Lee
Despite having access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) programs, many young people are often unaware of the risks of HIV, sexual violence and unwanted pregnancy. Increasing numbers of young people living in disadvantaged communities which usually lack sufficient services and support have made the problem worse.

I talked to Yang Yu about his experience and perspective on SRH. Yang, a 22-year-old student currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Communication at Renmin University in Beijing, China, plans on continuing his study in public health, focusing on SRH. Yang works as a national coordinator at China Youth Network to improve SRH for young people in China. He and I discussed what SRH-related issues young people face and how we can help them speak up for their rights.

Yang was surprised how few East Asian participants came to the World Conference on Youth compared with participants from other regions. He pointed out that youth participation in addressing SRH-related issues and promoting SRH rights is very low in East Asia. “This is a problem.  Many people do not speak out enough about sensitive issues like SRH unless their work is related to it.  Even then, they do not receive much support. This makes it challenging for people like me to continue the work.” 

Insufficient support for young people’s health and development, according to Yang, is the biggest challenge facing young Chinese today. According to Yang, schools only focus on students’ academic achievement. 

Yang said people did not openly talk about sex or related issues. This lack of openness makes it difficult for both young and older generations to understand and respond to young people’s needs.  This is especially difficult for marginalized groups, such as young people from rural areas, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities, who are often harder to reach because China is so vast and resources are often scarce.

Yang also brought up the problem of abortion. “In China, girls do not have access to SRH information and services. They think of abortion as a means of contraception without knowing how badly it can affect their health.”

I asked him what action he would like to see the government and others take. He said that young people needed age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education for both boys and girls. “A common misbelief about SRH is that it is only girls’ problem. But both boys and girls are decision-makers, so both should be involved.” 

Yang would also like to see SRH training programs for young people that provide manuals and guidance, and monitor and assess existing SRH programs. He believes that technical and financial support from international organizations and civil society groups would help young people and marginalized groups more directly and effectively.

Lastly, I asked Yang why youth are so important to his work. “Whenever I am asked this question, I always think about one of the UN’s slogans: Nothing for Us Without Us. Young people are important because the future belongs to them.” 

Speaking to Yang who is passionate about youth and their issues has reminded me of how important it is for organizations like UNICEF to listen to young people. It allows us to understand their perspectives and build on their insights to help all young people develop into healthy adults.

The author
Hyunjeong Lee is an education consultant on adolescent development and participation at UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.

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