Investing in Youth Leadership

Ishita Chaudhry is the Founder and Managing Trustee of The YP Foundation. This article was written on 6 December 2010.

When you grow up in urban India like I have, it’s almost like growing up with two identities at the same time. The first is where in your own world, you are trying to establish yourself in a society that traditionally doesn’t really listen to young people.

And then you meet this second world, and realize that you’re part of a population of 315 million people in India, who are between 10 and 24 years of age. And the statistics that define and describe this demographic that you are a part of are worrying.

Population Council did a National Study on ‘Youth in India’ in 2006-2007 to discover that of a total population of over 50,000 young people, only 15% of young people have access to information from their parents or teachers on any kind of sexuality education. By 18, 28% of Indian women will have given birth to a child and 49% will be married. Of 2.5 million people in India who are HIV+, 50% of all new infections take place amongst young people between 15-24 years of age.

I live in an era with 1/3rd of the world’s population constituting young people. The urgent need of addressing their right to services, information and healthcare is clear. Let’s stop there. You begin to wonder therefore, why we are not involved with policies and programmes that affect our lives and why our rights are not considered important enough to invest in. Especially when we know this world cannot afford the financial and public health burden and risk of not doing so.

Almost 73% of young girls in India have misconceptions about modes of HIV transmission and Comprehensive Sexuality Education is banned in 7 states across the country. In this century, these cannot be justifiable reasons anymore for why young people do not have access to comprehensive health services or information. Often when we talk about education, we need to understand that issues of violence, abuse, harm reduction, poverty, sexuality, climate, equity, culture and norms impact different young people differently. We need to empower young people to make informed decisions, so they are best placed to negotiate vulnerabilities that impact them.

There is something fundamentally incorrect, with health and policy systems, with governments that put the idea of shame, silence and taboo into a young child’s mind by virtue of the lack of education they give him or her on basic issues regarding their body, rights, sexuality and health. Young people need to be trusted. We do not lack the ability to comprehend information given to them and can be trusted to exercise informed decision making, on the premise that unbiased information is given to us.

Most development aid approaches and agencies have a tendency to infantilize young people in how they see and work with this constituency, denying them agency to exercise independent choice. We often tend to justify giving young people information from adisease prevention, population control perspective, instead of a rights based approach to health. The strategy that looks to ‘protect and save’ young people, especially young women and girls, is often the one, which fails in the long run. The only real protection that can work to effectively address young people and women and girl’s vulnerability to HIV infection and violence is empowerment. We are capable of saving ourselves.

The effectiveness of the information that is internalized by young people will depend both upon the relevance and the content in which they live. I frequently train adolescents and young girls in the work that I do, both in urban schools as well as urban slums. By legitimizing a space to discuss their concerns, as a 17 year old girl mentioned in her feedback form, ‘I realized that issues like HIV and sex weren’t just about infection. It’s about me. How much I understand and respect and have control over my own body. There’s nothing wrong in asking questions, they reduce stigma. The only shame is in not answering them.’

In this political moment, it is perhaps worth asking, why we are so scared to empower young people and whether we can afford the financial burden of not doing so. You should be able to make informed decisions in your own life and have the power to protect yourself from threats to your health and well being. No well-meaning donor, policy maker or funding strategy should deny you those basic rights. And this work cannot happen without integrated support.

‘Leaders’ in our generation don’t need to be single individuals with exceptional brilliance, but rather shared roles in communities where policies recognize that investing in empowering people to build equity is key. When you invest in building the skills, knowledge and access that a young person has, you empower young people to create economic and resource equity in their communities, not just for each other, but also for future generations to come.

A generation of informed young people can challenge, change and mitigate the devastating impact that a lack of health and rights leaves many of us in today.

Policy has to be willing to work with young people, rather than for them, to empower them to stand up for themselves. That, in my mind, is the critical challenge and the greatest contribution that governments and donors can make to the largest-ever generation of young people.

Bibliography

  • Nirantar, Sexuality Education Series, Part 1.
  • 2008 National Aids Control Organization’s Adolescent Education Programme.
  • IPPF CSE Framework.
  • Population Council, Study, Youth in India: Situation and Needs 2006-2007.
  • ‘Know Your Body, Know Your Rights’, The YP Foundation, 2010
  • The author would like to acknowledge the contributions and research of Ishita Sharma and Ruchika Tara Mathur (former volunteers at TYPF) to the article.