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Young leaders have the power to reach their peers and communities in ways most government officials can’t.
Abou Diallo was on vacation with his family when his girlfriend showed up to see him, agitated and worried. She hadn’t had her period for two months, she told him. A pregnancy test confirmed their fears.
“And she and I began the greatest nightmare of our lives,” Abou says.
Their parents kicked them out, disowned them. Abou’s father said he’d brought shame and dishonor on their family and ruined their reputation. When their daughter was born, Abou thanked God, but resolved not to repeat his mistakes.
Childbearing is one of the leading causes of death among adolescent girls worldwide.
Today, Abou doesn’t want any other young person in his home country of Guinea to go through what he and his girlfriend did. That’s why he became one of the 92 trained youth ambassadors who lead advocacy campaigns for family planning and reproductive health across the nine francophone West African countries that make up the Ouagadougou Partnership, a coalition that’s working to give 2.2 million more people in the region access to family planning by 2020.
Abou and his fellow ambassadors reach out to in- and out-of-school young people and advocate to their countries’ decision-makers to make their priorities heard—namely that young people must have access to contraceptives and youth-friendly, rights-based reproductive health services, and be involved in shaping the policies that affect young people in their countries.
Childbearing is one of the leading causes of death among adolescent girls worldwide. Every year, more than seven million girls 18 years or younger give birth in low- and middle-income countries. Being able to time and delay births is especially critical for adolescents under 18, according to the Guttmacher Institute, because they’re at greater risk of pregnancy-related death and complications, and their children face greater health risks too. In West Africa, maternal mortality and fertility rates remain high, and use of modern family planning methods and contraceptives remains low compared to other world regions.
But the youth ambassador program is working to change that. One 16-year-old in Burkina Faso summed up one of the biggest reasons why the peer-to-peer approach is so powerful during a conversation with youth ambassador Nina Koné:
“I preferred to meet with you,” she told Nina, “because in the health centers the midwives are the same age as my mother. They’re nice and sweet, but I’m afraid they’ll judge me.” So maybe it’s universal: Getting advice about sex is just way less agonizing when it comes from someone your own age.
The youth ambassadors don’t replace health workers in their countries, of course, but they provide another valuable source of information. Their training ensures that the advice they give is sound and that they can point their peers to youth-friendly health services.
This model of getting young people involved in civil society has multiple benefits.
Civil Society for Family Planning (CS4FP) Plus, which trains the youth ambassadors, is working with civil society groups and community leaders to increase the use and accessibility of family planning services for women, families, and youth, and ultimately to improve maternal, newborn, and child health in the region. This model of getting young people involved in civil society has multiple benefits, and can even help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Here’s why:
Citizen groups empower young people. It’s a great way for them to get the practical skills they need to get more involved in their communities, hold their governments accountable, and shape their countries’ futures—and their own.
Leading the tidal wave of 1.2 billion young people fast approaching adulthood are young professionals—health workers, journalists, activists—who have unprecedented power to mobilize their peers and communities and to change social norms. Civil society engagement offers them opportunities to lead change, whether it’s helping more people use family planning, protecting the environment, or keeping more kids in school.
Getting more girls and women involved in civil society is crucial not just for Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality) but for all the goals. From eliminating poverty to creating strong global partnerships, civil society organizations open up opportunities both for young women and for their countries’ economic development.
The new UN report World Population Prospects estimates that by 2050, around 2.2 billion people could be added to the global population, and that more than half of that growth will occur in Africa. As part of the biggest generation of young people in history, Nina, Abou, and the other youth ambassadors will all be running the show by then. And they know that having a healthy, prosperous future for their generation means they need to start planning now.
“If I had one piece of advice for the youth in my country,” Nina says, “it would be this: You are the future of Burkina Faso. So it’s high time and critical you engage in sexually responsible behavior and prioritize your sexual and reproductive health.”
IntraHealth International serves as the Ouagadougou Partnership Coordination Unit primarily funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. IntraHealth’s CS4FP Plus initiative is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Dutch Embassy.
Want to know more trailblazers like these? Meet the Young Future-Planners of West Africa and stay tuned to the Future Planners series on IntraHealth’s Picture It, where you can meet the people behind health care. And join the conversation on International #YouthDay, August 12, 2017.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.