Cecilia, 16, and Sylvian, 21, may not live in the same hemisphere, but they are connected by their passion for sharing sexual and reproductive health information with those in their community who are often overlooked by government officials and health care workers—young people.

At PAI, we recognize that no matter where they are from, young people encounter immense barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights, including cultural stigma, absence of providers who are responsive to the needs of youth and lack of contraceptive options. Cecilia and Sylvian demonstrate that young people are the most qualified to take the lead on tackling these challenges and forging their own path toward equitable sexual and reproductive health care and policies.

On International Youth Day, PAI celebrates these young women, who have engaged with local advocacy organizations to improve youth understanding of and access to sexual and reproductive health services in their communities. Read below to learn more about Cecilia’s and Sylvian’s stories.

 

Cecilia Hernández, Chiapas, Mexico

Cecilia Hernández, a 16-year-old student from Chiapas, Mexico enjoys English, math and technology—dancing, however, is a bit too traditional for her taste. She was first introduced to the Observatorio de Mortalidad Materna (The Observatory for Maternal Mortality, OMM) through her brother. When he could no longer dedicate time to join OMM’s health promoter program, he invited Cecilia to participate.

OMM has been engaged in their traditional working community of San Andrés Larráinzar to address the unique barriers to accessing quality sexual and reproductive health for young people. For Cecilia, who takes pride in her hometown, the opportunity to spend her free time learning more about these challenges and educating her friends and community was exciting, so she quickly became a health promoter herself.

In this role, Cecilia found that the youth in San Andrés Larráinzar and nearby municipalities are afraid to seek out information about health services including contraception due to cultural stigma. Many of her friends and classmates have tried to seek care at the community health center, but fear that those who see them at the facility will report back to their parents. Similarly, when health staff speak at their schools, many students leave to avoid repercussions at home.

This concern extends to searching for resources online largely because of religious and cultural beliefs—which Cecilia knows personally. Growing up, she was told that sexual and reproductive health is bad, and the church preached that using family planning methods is a sin. “I think these beliefs are wrong—limiting information is wrong and it’s critical to act to avoid possible problems.”

 

Youth promoters Cecilia and Angelina Sántiz, right, confer at a health clinic where they regularly work in San Andrés Larráinzar, Chiapas, Mexico.

 

Cecilia has been trained by OMM to be a citizen monitor, where she travels to public health facilities across Chiapas to record how staff treat their patients. Although generally OMM finds resistance to this oversight, Cecilia has been surprised to receive support from the community and health staff.

In one instance, she saw that a clinic had stockouts for multiple contraceptive options. Cecilia knew this was critical—when she asked the staff about it, they told her that the family planning methods requested from the Ministry of Health were overdue to arrive. “This is harder for young people,” she explains, “because they don’t have money, they have a hard time asking for what is [available] and not that many pharmacies sell birth control.”

Cecilia is motivated by advice from her brother, who cared deeply about sharing sexual and reproductive health information with friends and classmates during his year training with OMM. Her own friends have been interested to learn and even ask for advice when they start dating. Although Cecilia asserts, “I don’t have time to dedicate to a boyfriend in addition to this work and studying,” she uses the knowledge she obtained from her work with OMM to inform others about contraceptives to use to avoid pregnancy and how to communicate with their parents about family planning.

“This is such a beautiful job,” she shares. “Meeting people in the health centers, getting to learn more about sexual and reproductive health and having the opportunity to travel to other communities—this job is a blessing.” In addition to her work with OMM, Cecilia sells shoes, accessories and clothes in pursuit of her dream of designing her own fashion line.

 

Cecilia browses through a catalog to inspire her next business purchases, at her home in San Andrés Larráinzar, Chiapas, Mexico.

 

Sylvian Musau and her daughter Chelsea Daniella, Mombasa, Kenya

Sylvian Musau had never heard about family planning until she became unexpectedly pregnant at age 20. “I never knew how to face my parents because I saw that I was a failure—a disappointment.” Sylvian had to deal with more than just her parents. Her pregnancy was shameful to the Jomvu community, one of the settlements in Mombasa county along the Kenyan coast.

Sylvian knew the judgement wouldn’t stop after giving birth. “So, you don’t know what choice to make,” she admits. “Do you abort, do you keep the child? How will you manage? How will you bring that child up?” Although she was uncertain about the future, she couldn’t confide in her family and stay at home.

While she was pregnant, Sylvian lived with any friend who had space for her. That’s when she met young people involved in a group called the Pwani Youth Network, a community-based partner of Kenya Muslim Youth Development Organization (KMYDO). Staff members taught Sylvian about contraceptives and women’s empowerment throughout her pregnancy.

 

Sylvian, with her daughter Chelsea Daniella, speaks with Alfred Sigo, founder of the Pwani Youth Network, in Sylvian’s apartment, Mombasa, Kenya.

 

Once her daughter, Chelsea Daniella, was born, Sylvian made the choice to speak openly about her experience in order to help decrease the stigma she had faced. “I have to share this story… And I see it as a strength.”

Now 21, Sylvian is not only tackling motherhood, but also mentoring girls ages 9 to 24 in a young mothers’ club. “You actually find that most of them, they’re young mothers… [due to] early and unsafe sex.” Sylvian receives support from Pwani Youth Network and KMYDO to reach other adolescent girls in Mombasa county with information on contraceptives, such as condoms, to prevent HIV infection and pregnancy.

Because of her work, Sylvian’s community selected her as its Miss Youth to Youth ambassador, where she uses her title to teach young girls about reproductive health and influence others to get involved. She counsels the girls in Jomvu, refers them to the nearest health facility and hosts dialogues with youth groups, religious institutions and on social media.

By bringing Chelsea to events, Sylvian has shown her community what it means to be a young mother, in the hopes that young people will use family planning to prevent unwanted pregnancy. For Sylvian, being a mom is “the best feeling ever.” Seeing her child growing, after all the hardship Sylvian has faced, gives her the “strength to go out there—speak, work and hustle.”

Sylvian hopes that current teenage pregnancy statistics will decrease because young girls who hear her story will be inspired to transform their lives. In the future, she sees herself as an ambassador who will impact “not only the subcounty, but the whole of Kenya. Because there’s no greater feeling than helping a person who needs it.”

 

Sylvian, with her daughter Chelsea Daniella, does the dishes in her apartment, Mombasa, Kenya.