If the Future is the Youth, Make Time to Engage with Them
An Interview with Tenin Traore, Program Officer at MESSI (Mission des jeunes pour l'Education la Santé, la Solidarité et l'Inclusion)
How did you start working on adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health (AYSRH)?
First, as an adolescent, I realized that there were very little resources available to me and my peers during our formative years. In and out of school, we did not have platforms where we could easily and privately access information about our sexual and reproductive health. The death of one of my closest teenage friends also reflected the reality that young Ivorian people did not know about their sexual health. My friend was 19 years old when she became pregnant, and she was scared, ashamed and did not know what to do. She decided that in order to keep this a secret and avoid having to go to a service provider, she would get an abortion. Since abortion is illegal in Côte d’Ivoire (in most cases), she decided to go to traditional herbalists in the market to end the pregnancy. Unfortunately, a day later, she died due to complications from this unsafe abortion. At that moment, I knew that I had a responsibility to change the circumstances that led to her death.
Why is it important to have young people at the table when making AYSRH policy?
There is no one, in any Ministry, in any agency, or anywhere that can speak directly to the needs of young people better than young people themselves. Our obstacles are our own, and the solutions to these obstacles will not be relevant unless they are co-developed with us.
Based on your experience, what happens when young people are not meaningfully engaged in policy discussions?
When young people are not part of every stage of policy development and implementation, these policies are often irrelevant and do not address the needs of young people. I have seen it happen many times in Côte d’Ivoire—young people being invited as spectators during policy discussions with no meaningful engagement, and thus no political point of intervention. When young people do not have a point of intervention for policies about them, there is no way solutions can be developed that will target and focus on the different nuances that impact the lived realities and needs of young people.
What challenges have you experienced related to your work and how have you overcome them?
Getting decision-makers to make time and make room for us is our biggest challenge. They say they want the youth voice, but often, decision-makers do not have time to meet with us or listen to us outside of their campaign events. It may be that decision-makers want to avoid young advocates because we are often reminding them of their commitments—but still, we find it increasingly difficult to schedule time with those who make policy. To overcome these challenges, we have found allies with those who serve as advisors to the decision-makers we are trying to meet. Right now, we are working to meet with the Mayor of the Plateau District of Abidjan, and since it has been difficult to meet with him, we have met with his Deputy, his counsel. The key is to meet with those that the decision-maker finds most helpful, and who often have more time to meet with external people as well.
What successes have you had and how did they happen?
Like I said above, we have met the Deputy Mayor of the Plateau District who supports our cause and is an ally in every way. We have also met with the Director of Youth Engagement for the Mayor, who even requested a working session with him and his team to discuss our advocacy objectives. This is a big success for us, as it places us within the Mayor’s inner policy circle and allows us to share our advocacy objectives with everyone there.
What is your advice to governments and other stakeholders on how to meaningfully engage young people?
Be accessible—if the future is the youth, then make time for engaging with them, create structures and enabling environments to listen, exchange and develop with them.