Most Ethiopians of my generation use the cliché, “to the uneducated community that educated me, I am grateful.” Even though it’s a cliché, I completely stand by it. As a young person who has been actively engaged in sexual and reproductive health (SRH) for as long as I can remember, I truly am grateful to my community. I began talking about HIV prevention when the topic was completely taboo—and when I was only six years old. Luckily there were many new youth clubs forming in Ethiopia that were genuinely concerned with the SRH of everyone. These youth clubs were motivated by the terrible fact that we were losing loved ones to HIV/AIDS—not only to the disease itself but also due to high suicide rates as a result of stigma. I was among the many families who participated in the awareness creation campaigns, and the youth clubs empowered and educated me. I was accepted and heard because my community enabled me to learn, speak, be heard, and to share information with our friends and their siblings. I learned how to use bananas to show how condoms were used; we went door to-door and spoke to parents, young people and children; we counseled our peers, assisted medical personnel; and ate with people living with HIV to show that it was all right.
As more young people became interested in helping, they received encouragement from community members to be active on SRH. The youth clubs received financial support and grew into youth-led organizations. I later found out that the organization I currently work for, Talent Youth Association (TaYA), was one of a very few number of organizations that started as a youth club still in existence today. TaYA has been working relentlessly on different SRH issues facing young people since the early 2000s. As young people, the staff easily understood the problems, along with the real solutions. However, as the founders of TaYA became adults, they knew they were no longer as aware of what the next generation of youth wanted even though they had experience. TaYA therefore started a youth council, Ethiopian Youth Council for Higher Opportunities (ECHO). Comprised only of youth, ECHO drafts its own projects on SRH while assisting TaYA with all its projects. It has been a successful way to keep a youth-led organization young!
As an ECHO member and staff of TaYA, I have been working on empowering young people around my beautiful country by sharing facts, briefing them on policies and showing them how to engage meaningfully with policymakers. We also build relationships with government stakeholders and NGOs to get them to see the youth perspective. It has been an honor to see the change. At TaYA, we were recently asked by the government to draft a Youth Engagement Strategy for Ethiopia’s National Adolescent and Youth Health Strategy. A national strategy for engaging young people! How amazing is that? The strategy is meant to enable young people to take ownership of their health. If there is a target group, it is best to ask them what they want. As a result, the government has not only heard our suggestions, but intends to promote the strategy and engage young people at different levels of its programs.
Meaningfully engaged, from program planning, to implementation to monitoring and evaluation—that is how young people should participate, as I gladly did. Opportunities such as drafting the Youth Engagement Strategy are only possible because TaYA’s ECHO group and I were empowered and given a seat at the table with the government and other policymakers. We are also thankful to the Federal Ministry of Health of Ethiopia for the support. We were heard, we were funded and now young people will be able to participate in the implementation of programs that are for us. We must continue raising the voices of young people to help them make informed decisions. That way they can also thank the community that educated them, so they and all Ethiopians can be healthy!