Joy Cunningham, is a Senior Technical Officer at FHI 360 where she oversees a portfolio of global youth activities, including oversight for activities conducted under USAID’s Interagency Youth Working Group (IYWG).
Those of us committed to improving the sexual and reproductive health of young people anxiously awaited USAID’s Youth in Development Policy, which was released earlier this month. The policy stresses the importance of a holistic approach to youth development, in recognition that programs can’t address any single issue in isolation. Young people live multi-dimensional and often complex lives, particularly in developing countries, and programs need to reflect that reality.
As an advocate for youth sexual and reproductive health, I was heartened by the policy’s emphasis on a cross-discipline approach to improving the lives of young people. We can’t work in silos to improve access to education or build economic opportunities, for example, if we are not also helping protect young people from HIV, treating those living with HIV, or preventing early and unintended pregnancy. We must work toward a generation of young people healthy enough to enjoy the benefits they might reap from other development opportunities. The Youth in Development Policy reflects that sentiment as well, stating the importance of sexual and reproductive health as an essential component of youth development.
USAID highlights four key areas of opportunity and of challenge for young people: economics, education, peace, security and democracy, and health. Not only are sexual and reproductive health (SRH) key components of the health needs emphasized by the policy, but SRH considerations are embedded throughout the policy. The policy includes attention to hard-to-reach groups such as migrant and refugee youth, street children, rural youth, married girls and young people with disabilities. Also, key protection issues such as early marriage, gender-based violence, trafficking and rights of LGBT populations are addressed, all with sexual and reproductive health implications.
Now that we know what the policy looks like, we have already begun asking the next questions: What will happen now? How will the results of the recent election affect USAID’s spending on youth in development, and specifically, sexual and reproductive health? How will this policy evolve into strategies, frameworks and programs? How will it play out at the country level?
I hope that the release of USAID’s policy will bring global attention to the critical importance of young people’s sexual and reproductive health as a fundamental, foundational component of their overall development. We’ve got to begin youth development work with healthy young people and ensure they stay alive. Pregnant girls rarely stay in school. Young people who are living with untreated HIV might not live long enough to contribute to their country’s peace and democracy efforts. At FHI 360, we believe young people are catalysts for positive, sustainable change. Let’s help them reach their full potential.