Back in November 2013, Rwandan youth activist Christelle Kwizera was chosen to speak to delegates at the High-Level Ministerial Meeting (HLMM) of the 2013 International Conference on Family Planning, to provide a youth perspective on policy for family planning and sexual and reproductive health. This week, USAID’s Interagency Youth Working Group is holding a follow-up  e-forum titled “Following through on the 2013 ICFP: Youth, SRHR and Policy Change.” PAI interviewed Christelle, who is serving as one of the youth experts for the e-forum, on what ICFP meant for youth advocacy, and the road ahead.

Q. What were the biggest challenges youth addressed at the International Conference on Family Planning?

Christelle presenting at the High-Level Ministerial Meeting at ICFP. Photo courtesy of Advance Family Planning.

Christelle presenting at the High-Level Ministerial Meeting at ICFP. Photo courtesy of Advance Family Planning.

A. The ICFP 2013 was a unique and memorable event for many young people.  It had the largest presence of young people at an international conference (about 300) that was not specifically focused on youth. Additionally, the level of participation of the youth was higher this time as we, young people, were given important roles at the conference such as moderating panels and giving our perspective to very influential policy-makers.

Young people constitute more than 50 percent of the world population, however youth participation in policy-making is still low. Too often, young people are seen as just the problem, and it is easy to forget what being young means. The presence of more than 20 young people who are active family planning advocates in their communities at ICFP hopefully changed that misconception and made policy-makers and program directors realize the potential youth have as solution-makers.

Q. The HLMM focused on making gains for youth. Have you seen an increased commitment to youth in the months following the conference?

A. At the HLMM, I delivered a presentation on the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs of African youth. The very young African population constitutes the potential bright future of the continent, and it was good to remind the present ministers of Health, Finance, Youth and Gender that the unaddressed SRH needs of the youth are still major influences in young people’s lives.

In the discussion that followed the various presentations, ministers talked of strategies and programs in their countries that are made for the youth. The most common program was establishing youth centers. These youth centers are not necessarily a bad program—they are often amazing—but they are insufficient in that they promote an old way of viewing youth as only waiting to be told what to do. I hoped to spark discussions on how youth can be better reached using modern technology or how youth can incorporated in the decision-making process and considered as partners. Recently, governments in East Africa are partnering with youth more and more. Uganda has a number of programs run by young people and I hope to see more sub-Saharan countries joining in as they realize the potential in their youth as solution-makers and partners in development.

Q. What can ministers and other leaders do to ensure a brighter future for their young people? What should the next steps be?

A. First of all, youth need to be a priority for governments. We constitute the largest percentage in developing countries and the near future will reflect our successes or failures.  At this point in time, a number of good programs and policies have been established to ensure young people’s needs are addressed. Ministers and other leaders need to open the conversation with young people so as to learn from them what their needs are and to incorporate successful programs in their agenda for youth.

“It is up to youth to create solutions for themselves.”

“It is up to youth to create solutions for themselves.”

With the modern challenges affecting youth, modern solutions need to be drafted. There is a need for creativity when establishing a program for young people. Ministers and other leaders should not rely on old solutions or traditional systems, because if they had worked, the problem would not still be present. I consider these to be must-haves for programs addressing youth SRH needs: comprehensive sexuality education, clear government regulated and youth-approved guidelines for youth-friendly services, full access to commodities and counseling services in a confidential setting.

Q. What do you see as the most pressing issues facing your generation?

A. Most sub-Saharan governments have previously relied on the traditional education system for training and equipping individuals with skills. But the rising young generation is finding it harder to find employment or obtain relevant skills that can be put to use in the market. The most pressing issues right now are drug abuse, unmet SRH needs, a lack of skills, the right attitude, resources, and support. All these directly affect young people and contribute to current unemployment levels. Many young people cannot fulfill their potential because of lack of advice and mentorship, lack of financing and resources to start their own ventures, and lack of the right attitude to be self-reliant and explore new ventures.

As Dr. Babatunde once said “It is up to the youth to create solutions for themselves.” The older generation may not understand the problem of unemployment, and it is up to the youth to find creative solutions and create jobs. It is thus imperative that government and concerned organizations work with us and help promote youth initiatives.