Last week, more than 3,000 global leaders working in the field of maternal and reproductive health gathered in Washington, D.C for the Women Deliver 2010 conference. With the theme of delivering solutions for girls and women, the conference focused on sharing solutions that can help us achieve the millennium development goals on maternal and reproductive health.
Young people were one of the focuses of the conference. One hundred young leaders were selected to attend a special youth pre-conference. I was one of them. After interacting with my fellow young leaders, I am amazed by the amount of the work many of them have been doing and its impact in making the lives of girls and women in their communities better.
Most of the young leaders on reproductive health that I met were not from a medical background. This was a bit of a surprise for me. There were maths students, human rights activists, engineers, managers who have been doing immense work to improve the health of women. This made me wonder if we, young doctors and medical students, are lagging behind in advocacy despite our distinct relationship to health and wellbeing. Are we too clinically oriented?
I used to think that as young people we lacked the resources, skills or knowledge to do something meaningful that can make a measurable difference to our communities. I must admit that I was wrong. A young Stanford graduate has improved health workers’ care giving capacity in rural Malawi by more than twice by simple use of cellphones. A young girl from Afghanistan has set up more than 40 women basketball teams in Afghan colleges and uses sports as a medium to make women aware of their basic rights. In nearby Pakistan, another young girl has set up clinics that provide free health services to poor rural women.
So, what is it that young people have that is unique to their age? One of the things that I have noticed is that young people are more open to new ideas when compared with the not-so-young. No idea can be radical enough for a young mind. This is reflected in the numerous innovations that young people come up with to suit their objectives. I was surprised to know of the numerous creative ideas like dancing, music, or other entertainment methods that young people use to get public health messages across effectively.
Young people are also very effective in motivating their peers. They know how to talk to younger people like themselves. They know what programs can capture the attention of young people and what cannot. Yet, more often than not, governments and policy makers ignore the inputs from young people when formulating plans for them. And this, perhaps, is one of the reasons for failure of many programs to target the younger population effectively, especially the adolescents.
Also, it is not always that innovative ideas of young people are well accepted by society. In many countries in Asia and Africa, there are many social, cultural and religious barriers to talking about reproductive health. The ideas of the young may not conform to these barriers. The consequences could be unpleasant. Young people have been arrested, beaten up and have even lost lives for advocating on reproductive health.
I am highly inspired by the young people that I have met during the conference. They have made me realize the powerful role we, young people, can play in achieving the global targets on reproductive health. We are a part of the solution. And I sincerely believe that our voices are being heard.
Competing interests: My expenses for the conference, including air fare and stay, were covered by organisers.
Siddhartha Yadav is a former BMJ Clegg Scholar.