Why I choose to be a youth advocate for family planning

A version of this post originally appeared on Interagency Youth Working Group’s Blog, "Half the World". Reposted with permission.

Burcu recently joined young people and youth sexual and reproductive health (SRH) advocates from around the world as a discussant for the Interagency Youth Working Group (IYWG) online forum, Following through on the 2013 ICFP: Youth, SRHR and policy change. The forum, from February 4–6, gave participants an opportunity to discuss the importance of policy and young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Click here to learn more.

Why I choose to be a youth advocate for family planning

The summer after my first year in college, I was in my native Turkey, working as a documentary assistant. The documentary would show communities of women who had united around an innovative model for women’s cooperatives, and my job was to interview and translate. But what I was hearing tugged at my heart more than I could have imagined. I was hearing story after story of missed dreams. Among other determinants, for many of these women, there had been no such thing as the right to choose for themselves when they wanted to start families. Their lives had all been dictated by circumstance.

It wasn’t long before the study of women and more specifically, sexual and reproductive rights, assumed center stage in my academic and extracurricular careers. From Bangladesh, to Mexico, to Costa Rica, the needs of the women I encountered had not simply been unheard; they had been ignored and silenced, especially with regards to their sexual and reproductive rights.

The women in my own family had also been negatively impacted by a life of limited access and social incorporation due to limited reproductive health rights. My grandmother, for example, had married in her mid-teens and went on to have five children. Because of inadequate family planning knowledge and services, my grandmother not only lost out on her education, but also missed the valuable social and financial capital that would have been provided by a job. That social capital included important information-sharing opportunities regarding anti-domestic abuse laws, or healthcare access, for example. Don’t get me wrong – my grandmother was outspoken and a heroine in her own right. She advocated for education for her daughters that she was never given the opportunity to have. But her social and cultural surroundings made it such that she had no choice but to be a mother at a young age, inconvertibly changing her life course. It limited her education, her skillsets and development, and ultimately, her role and voice in family dynamics.

Young people have sex, or they will have sex, willingly or, in many areas of the world, against their will. Since youth are sexually active, SRH knowledge and access to the mechanisms to protect their rights is a ticket to a better future for them and their nations, alike. This isn’t a revolutionary idea, nor is it new. It might seem unfair that globally, youth are often victims of archaic and unjust policies and traditions that they were never invited to help create.

I may seem like I am stating the obvious, but our global health narrative and our evolution as a species depends on how quickly we wake up and embrace these facts. Access and choice for youth SRH is the real promise of protection. This goes beyond raising awareness. Moving forward is tied inextricably to our ability to advocate for better youth SRH policies and programming.

During the 2013 International Conference on Family Planning in Ethiopia, a group of youth participants bonded together over our common passion and experience advocating for stronger SRH for our generation. We formed the International Youth Alliance on Family Planning (IYAFP), a coalition that now has more than 400 members from all over the world. IYAFP aims to be a platform for ideas, success stories, and opportunity sharing for effective, more youth-friendly family planning intervention. IYAFP also aims to be a voice of young people during policy-making processes surrounding family planning and SRH issues at the local, national and international levels.

When IYAFP requested applications for country coordinators last month, we received over 290 applications from 59 countries. This is proof that youth from all over the world want to continue the momentum from ICFP. We want change. And we will work as hard and long as it takes to get it.

A mentor once told me that ‘structural changes follow cultural changes.’ As part of the most connected generation in the world’s history, I feel like we are uniquely qualified to change our respective cultures to ones that embrace the role of youth in deciding for themselves about their lives and SRH through increased knowledge and access. It is only then, when we have created a shift in our communities’ thinking, we can redefine and reclaim the space necessary to enact policies that protect everyone’s SRH rights.

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