Involving youth is vital for long-term change in sexual and reproductive health and rights

6 January 2020

“Nothing about us without us”, this was one of two key take home messages from the NWO-WOTRO Policy Roundtable on Vulnerable youth and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, which took place at the 8th African Population Conference in Uganda in November 2019. For real, sustainable SRHR change to happen, youth, including those who are most vulnerable, need to be involved in all aspects of SRHR planning and development. Their voices and views must form a vital part of research, implementation and policy-making, otherwise, their needs will not be met effectively and the chance for sustainable change will be lost

Picture: Flickr CC | David Stanley


At the roundtable the room was bustling, full of different stakeholders each keen to share their views, expertise and experience, and to listen and contribute to an open, frank discussion that would help breakdown barriers, find solutions to challenges and identify opportunities to collaborate. Amongst the stakeholders present were youths, including those with disabilities; along with policymakers; civil society organisations, researchers, practitioners and programme staff working with youths with disabilities, those at school, from refugee settings and at-risk females.

Gerrie Tuitert from the NWO-WOTRO Secretariat opened the session introducing NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development and the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) research programme. The co-chairs were Rolla Khadduri, NWO-WOTRO Knowledge Facilitator Quality Advisor, and AmplifyChange Fund Director at MannionDaniels; and The Hon. Safia Nalule Juuko, MP representing People Living with Disability in Central Uganda. The panellists included

  • Gervais Beninguisse, NWO project coordinator from IFORD who discussed the main challenges faced in conducting research on people living with disability;
  • Stella Neema from Makerere University, NWO project member who spoke about SRHR and refugee youth;
  • Harris Namutebi from the Network for Community Development, who shared insights from the implementer’s viewpoint and emphasised the role of parents;
  • Esther Leah Achandi, NWO project member who highlighted the SRHR needs of at risk female youth, and;
  • Connie Kekihembo, CEO, Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Uganda who shared her experiences of being the mother of a 19 year-old deaf girl for whom no SRHR services were available at the health centre, or beyond.

Bringing such a diverse group together led to an interesting and informative panel session. Then, the floor was open and there was a multitude of questions and comments from the audience ranging from the trafficking of girls in Burundi, the role of digital communications in sharing SRHR information and the need to combine economic empowerment and SRHR services.

Insights from the session

This animated and lively session resulted in the development of several policy recommendations, which can now be used to help set common agendas and to jointly tackle the main challenges related to addressing vulnerable youths and SRHR in Africa. The insights included:

  • Progress in SRHR will not happen without addressing youth SRHR, and improved SRHR for youth would not be achieved unless the multiple dimensions of vulnerability the youths face are understood and addressed;
  • For the right change to happen, the youths, including those who are most vulnerable, need to be involved in research, implementation, and policy-making to ensure that their needs are met. Such inclusive discussions and approach are essential in eventually leading to an effective and sustainable policy;
  • Parents play a critical role. Where parents are able to communicate effectively and accurately about SRHR, vulnerable youths are able to access the SRHR information and services they need and are empowered. Conversely, when the parents are unable to communicate such information to their children, this deepens their children’s vulnerability and puts them at high risk. Their vulnerability is further aggravated by multiple factors such as disability, dislocation, and poverty.

As well as these recommendations, two other key elements about how to effectively target vulnerable youth came out of the roundtable. The first was on how SRHR programmes can better target youth and the second about how research can help ensure programmes are more effective.

SRHR programmes can better target vulnerable youth by:

  • Identifying and addressing the multiple dimensions of vulnerability the youths are facing;
  • Involving vulnerable youth in scoping, designing, implementing, and evaluating SRHR programmes;
  • Mainstreaming the needs of vulnerable youths through effective communication;
  • Incorporating the education and empowerment of the parents of vulnerable youth;
  • Ensuring boys are included in interventions, not just for their own sake but also because their actions affect the vulnerable girls with whom they interact.

Research can help by:

  • Defining and collecting disaggregated data on specific vulnerable youth populations such as: youth with disabilities, refugee youth, and at-risk young girls;
  • Demonstrating the disproportionate SRHR burden the vulnerable youth may face and investigating why this is;
  • Understanding the needs of the vulnerable youth further by involving them as researchers and disseminators.

The multi-layered vulnerability of youth

The second key take home message was from a refugee girl who Stella Neema from Makerere University quoted in her speech. The girl said, “We burn twice like charcoal”. She referred to the multi-layered vulnerability of youth through disability, displacement, detachment from parents, lack of information and services, and poverty.

When you are thinking about undertaking your SRHR research, planning services or developing policies, please take time to remember those two very important messages: “Nothing about us without us”, and “We burn twice like charcoal”, and then do everything you can to make sure youth are involved.

About the SRHR research programme

The policy roundtable was initiated by the SRHR research Programme of NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development. WOTRO manages the calls for proposals on identified thematic areas and knowledge gaps by the Knowledge Platform for SRHR. This work is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. The first call for proposals for the SRHR research programme was launched in November 2014. The programme has invested six million euros in SRHR research in Bangladesh, Burundi and Jordan collectively, funding twelve projects, three of which are in Burundi.

The SRHR research programme aims to generate insights in, and a better understanding of, processes that determine and strengthen the sexual and reproductive health of people, as well as their ability to claim their sexual and reproductive rights. The programme aims to contribute to improving and innovating SRHR policies and practices, with a special focus on empowering young people and key populations as specified by the calls.

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Source: NWO