Giving Priority to Adolescents
To be successful, efforts to address the rights and needs of adolescents should actively involve young people in creating and implementing policies and programmes.
Adults tend to see children through the lens of their own interests and concerns. It is often taken as completely natural that adolescents should be invisible and subordinate to adults, seen but not heard from until spoken to. The challenge is to understand and address the disenfranchisement young people face as a group and as individuals.
This tendency to neglect the voices of young people is compounded by poverty and lack of access to economic resources, but also by various, interwoven forms of social neglect that exclude them from full participation in their societies.(19)
Over the past several years, a growing number of individuals and organizations around the world have come to question the treatment of young people as lesser beings. Why has it been acceptable—and in many cases legal—to beat children, marry them before they are able to understand what is happening to them, or pay them lower wages than adults for the same work?
The Convention on the Rights of the Child formally acknowledges children’s rights and not just the protections they need. Article 12 insists on children’s “visibility” in their own right, and states that children and young people have a right to express an opinion, and to have that opinion taken into account, in any matter affecting them. Implementing the CRC will require a shift in how people conceive of adult-child relationships, as children are more often seen as requiring protection and guidance than as having worthy inputs to offer themselves.(20)
Promoting young people’s “right to their rights”, a Scottish youth group calls itself “Article 12”. According to their web site, “Anyone involved in ‘Article 12’ believes in expressing their views at every opportunity, on anything they care about. But most importantly, they believe in creating the opportunities since, let’s face it, very few adults want to listen to young people.”
This new appreciation of the need to take young people’s views into account can also be seen in local programmes that involve young people in improving their own health and development—rather than treating them as the passive recipients of knowledge, services, or care.(21)
DEFINING YOUTH PARTICIPATION Over the past ten years, the notion of youth participation has gained ground and acceptance, moving from tokenism to active advocacy for involving young people more fully in decisions concerning them.
Youth participation has been defined in diverse—and inconsistent—ways.(22) The International Planned Parenthood Federation has gone a long way toward defining and applying a meaningful definition of youth participation within the organization. Since 1999, IPPF’s governance structure has required that at least 20 per cent of participating decision makers are under 25 years of age.(23) Its meetings routinely include young people who are encouraged and empowered to speak. Young people produce X-press, an IPPF newsletter for adolescents that is full of information about rights and health.
Participation in social groups communicates a feeling of connectedness and belonging, helping young people to develop a sense of their identity. Collaboration with peers who share some of their views fortifies their ideas and values. And the sense that one is contributing—to a cause, a decision, a group—can be a crucial part of a person’s development.
All of these factors are directly relevant to the sexual and reproductive lives of young people, as well. So much of what young people need for healthy development involves their relationships with others and the capacity to negotiate relationships and to make decisions.
Working in partnership with young people is often a challenge for adult programme managers, who may believe their greater experience makes them more suited to make decisions, and may not easily accept a relationship of equality that runs counter to typical adult-child dynamics.(24)
Not listening to the young can cause direct harm to young people, encourage impunity for abusers, or simply lead to the wrong decisions. Inclusion strengthens democracy, protects children better, and is a fundamental right.(25) It is also a key to progress for youth policies and programmes.
PROGRAMME ACHIEVEMENTS Inspiring examples of youth participation can be found at all levels: from the policy process; to media campaigns; to human rights advocacy; to peer education, services, counselling, and training. Young people, when called upon by adults who are serious about seeking youth input, provide exactly what is needed and enrich the process enormously. Effective national youth councils have been established in many donor and programme countries.
YOUTH MAKE POLICY IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
The Dominican Republic used a participatory process
to develop its National Adolescent and Youth Policy, 1998-
2003. In 1996, a national youth forum was organized as part
of a nationwide debate on social priorities, including youth
issues. Young participants demanded the Government lay out
a clear agenda for youth, and that youth participate in the policy
process. With support from UNFPA and the Pan-American
Health Organization, and with much input from young people,
an intersectoral committee drafted the national youth policy.
Young people further called for a law to establish a cabinetlevel
youth ministry and devote 1 per cent of the national
budget to it, legislation that was eventually passed with some
modifications. “Of symbolic and equal importance,” wrote one
observer, “is the law’s recognition of youth as a national
resource and positive force. This recognition is in striking contrast
to existing laws that portray young people as potential
troublemakers who must be controlled or punished.” See Sources
Recognizing that they need to make things happen for themselves, many young people have organized to improve their social, economic and political position. UNESCO lists many youth-led organizations, such as the Siberian Youth Initiative, that promote active participation in the development of youth policies, create conditions for cooperation among youth organizations and involve youth in addressing global issues.(26)
Some countries have tried to develop youth policies that explicitly involve young people and plan for their future participation. Colombia adopted a Youth Law that stimulated active participation of young people in national development issues, and pledged to respect and promote their rights.(27) Young people have been included in local development plans, and provincial youth offices have been established.
Spurred by women’s health advocacy efforts in Mexico, a group of young people started the Elige youth network in 1996, to promote a national discussion aimed at influencing legislators and making young people aware of their reproductive rights.(28) In 2001, with support from UNIFEM, they established a network of young women activists against gender-based violence.(29)
Elige is a member of the Latin American and Caribbean Youth Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (REDLAC), a regional advocacy network, which promotes the rights of young people, gender equality, and access to sexuality education and services. It coordinates the voices of youth organizations from around the region for campaigns, conferences and international meetings, and supports the training of peers.
The Canada-based Youth Coalition was formed in 1999 at a meeting in The Hague to review progress since the ICPD.(30) This international group is made up of people aged 15 to 29 who are committed to promoting young people’s sexual and reproductive rights and ensuring that they are given a voice in decision-making processes— particularly those that directly concern their own lives. Members are trained to conduct advocacy efforts with policy makers.
DUTCH COUNCIL ON YOUTH AND POPULATION
Dutch Council on Youth and Population, a group of
some 15 young people, is aiming at the realization of sexual
and reproductive rights of young people as well as meaningful
youth participation in this field. Since it was started by the
World Population Foundation in 1997, representatives have
been part of the official Netherlands delegation to several
international conferences on population and development,
women and HIV/AIDS, and have participated in World Youth
Forums in Portugal and Senegal. In these conferences they
have advocated for an open and honest approach towards the
sexuality of young people. The Council uses its expertise on
sexual and reproductive rights, youth participation and advocacy
in workshops and awareness-raising activities aimed at
young people in the Netherlands. It has also been active in
efforts to establish a European Youth Network in 2004 to
promote the sexual and reproductive rights of young people at
national, European and international forums. See Sources