Meaningful Youth Participation. A Song and Dance?

February 11, 2016 shutterstock_294482918 copy

Levi Singh (@LeviSingh6) blogs about 3 things he learnt at the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP)

We are not “planning families”

This was the title of the opening plenary of the youth pre-conference. With the bulk of 1.8 Billion youth globally being sexually active, this statement couldn’t be anymore relevant. Most of my peers would agree that we aren’t using family planning to ‘plan families’, but rather to avoid contracting any unwanted STI/D’s and to prevent the chances of our significant other, (bae to some) from an unintended pregnancy. We’re using family planning to be safe and responsible, and in doing so, we’re also making smart choices for our health and futures. So by opting to use this language of ‘planning families’, our discourse inherently becomes narrow and exclusionary as it excludes young people who sell sex, young LGBTQI people, young people living with HIV, etc. Like me, these fellow young people need access to sexual and reproductive health services and information—and it’s not always because they’re planning families, but because they want to be able to make the best choices for themselves, choices that also make it possible for them to lead safe and pleasurable sexual lives.

Here is an idea, perhaps it’s time to even reconsider the relevancy of “ICFP” as we know it. Perhaps we should consider changing the name to the International Conference of on Family Planning AND Contraception? After all, the current terminology is at least 20 years old (as old as I am), and is more focused on population reduction than it is on enabling a population to survive, thrive and transform the world as we know it.


I had to wait until the last day of the conference to hear what was perhaps, my take home statement for the entire conference; “integration is no longer an option, it is now a necessity”.

On the second day of the ICFP, I attended a session on the family planning needs of people living with HIV. There were a mere seven other sessions and side events over the course of the conference addressing the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of young people. However, sessions around the needs of others who have difficulty accessing services because of restrictive laws and policies, stigma and discrimination were almost nonexistent.

On my morning runs along the Nusa Dua beach promenade, I couldn’t help but notice the Tsunami awareness zone signs. One would think that at a family planning conference, on an island, a month after the historic Paris climate agreement, it’d be improbable to not address the growing threat of climate change on populations and its intersections with family planning, and even town planning (eluded to in the ICPD PoA). Disappointingly, this was not the case including broader intersectional issues such as nutrition, food security and economic aspects.

I suggest we look at the newly adopted sustainable development goals (SDGs), how they are integrated, universal and indivisible in nature, and then situate future discourse on family planning within this agenda. Let’s be serious, the FP2020 targets will never be achieved if we keep fighting for family planning alone. Leadership and political will needs to come from all strata and not just government. This is our chance to change the rules of the game by working together.

Youth participation…a song and dance?

It was quite interesting to note that there were no youth speakers identified at the official opening ceremony of the main conference to speak alongside the bigwigs and high-level personnel. I was told this was due to young people having their own plenary a few days later.

Fast forward to the youth plenary and it was nowhere nearly as well advertised, let alone well attended, as the opening plenary. Some of the young people I had spoken to felt a bit lost, overwhelmed or disconnected from the larger ‘youth group’ as it was their first time in a setting like this.

The other trend I noticed was that young people would mostly attend the sessions on youth and adolescents or in which a fellow young person from the larger youth group was speaking. When it came to sessions on financing, SDGs indicators, parliamentary engagement and religion, young people were hardly present in the room.

Where are the young people?! The young advocates who will go back to their countries and constituencies and demand that their governments make efforts towards securing an SDG indicator on comprehensive sexuality education? The young advocates who will go back to their health ministries and demand to know how much of the national health budget is being allocated towards family planning?

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was at the closing plenary when the young people were afforded the opportunity to present the outcomes of their 2- day youth pre- conference deliberations. Rather than delivering a statement on behalf of the young people at the conference (the largest youth delegation in ICFP history), ‘meaningful youth participation’ turned into a high school musical sequel and a song and dance was presented.

Critical as I may sound, I do appreciate the enthusiasm, creativity and freshness of this cohort of young people at ICFP, but I’m also quite tired of hearing from the older generation that this is what should be expected from us – song, dance and protest? In order for truly meaningful youth participation to be realized and achieved, we need to be able to participate and engage at an equal footing. We’re striving to be recognized as stakeholders and partners in the development of a better world, as activists and advocates for change, not entertainers.

So far, so good, so what?

Having been there when the SDG’s were adopted in September 2015, and in following the aftermath it’s almost as if the international community has adopted this attitude of “so far, so good”, patting themselves on the back for concluding an intergovernmental negotiation process which was tedious to say the least. My attitude however is that of “so far, so good, so what”? I know that this sounds unreasonable but not when considering the fact that every year, 1.3 million adolescents die of preventable causes, 120 million girls under 20 years are victims of sexual violence, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 and 2.1 million adolescents live with HIV with 64% of new HIV infections occurring in girls 15-19.[i]

Putting it plainly, what a depressing place to grow up. It’s no wonder that the two leading causes of death within this age group (15-19) are suicide and complications during pregnancy and childbirth. It’s easy to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore these ginormous numbers, but what these statistics are telling us, more than anything else, is that if this generation of young leaders are truly going to be the torchbearers of the SDG’s, then ensuring their access to modern contraception is essential and non-negotiable.

Why? Because the deadline to reach the FP2020 targets is but 48 months away, and the deadline to achieve the SDG’s and the broader Agenda 2030 is but 175 months away. Furthermore, we know that if the FP2020 targets aren’t met, it’s going to make achieving the SDG’s a lot more challenging, not forgetting the unfinished business if of MDG5 (b). In the words of Lord Buddha, the problem is we “think we have time”.

Do you still think I’m unreasonable in demanding that we leave no one behind in our interventions or through our adopted language? Am I being unreasonable in my calls for intersectionality and leadership that cuts across all strata of society? And what about my wanting to see genuine, meaningful youth participation in which young people are regarded as stakeholders and partners in their own development?

In the words of George Bernard Shaw – “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man”. Question is, do you wanna get unreasonable with me?

[i] The Global Strategy for Women, Children and Adolescents Health 2016-2030

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARROW.  

Levi Singh is a 21 year old SRHR advocate from Durban, South Africa. He serves as a regional youth advisor to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and as the Secretary General of the African Youth & Adolescents Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN). Levi has also served as a youth delegate on the official South African national delegation to the United Nations. Apart from advocacy and a passionate interest in human rights and international relations, Levi enjoys reading, cooking, yoga, calisthenics, listening to classical rock, jazz, EDM and paying forward a random act of kindness to a stranger daily.