Meaningful youth engagement to improve adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights
Every day, young people are enriching institutions and processes at the local, national, and global levels.
This year, the theme of International Youth Day is “Youth Engagement for Global Action.” It
highlights the importance and value of young people’s contributions and draws lessons on how their representation and engagement in formal institutional politics can be significantly enhanced.
The theme of the day raises three questions:
- What is meaningful youth engagement?
- What are the benefits and challenges of meaningful youth engagement?
- How does WHO strive to practice meaningful youth engagement in its work?
What is meaningful youth engagement?
Meaningful youth engagement, as defined by the 2018 Global Consensus Statement, is an inclusive,
intentional, mutually-respectful partnership between young people and adults. Power is shared and respective contributions are valued.
Young people’s ideas, perspectives, skills, and strengths are integrated into the design and delivery of programs, strategies, policies, funding mechanisms – and organizations that affect their lives and their communities, countries, and
What are the benefits and challenges of meaningful youth engagement?
Meaningful youth engagement ensures that young people are equal and valuable partners – not only beneficiaries – in efforts to improve their health and wellbeing. It increases the likelihood that policies and programmes will be acceptable,
appropriate, and responsive to their needs and preferences.
Although global rhetoric increasingly acknowledges the value of meaningful youth engagement, it often remains more of an aspiration than a reality. There is still considerable resistance to giving young people a place at the table.
When young people are given opportunities to contribute, it is most often older, urban, educated, and well-connected young people that are selected. Their engagement is often tokenistic and their responsibilities small, for instance leading
energizer activities at conferences, taking notes during meetings, or formatting references in reports. Additionally, young people’s contributions are rarely measured effectively to demonstrate their value, and their contributions are
often not appropriately acknowledged, either with authorship or compensation.
This must not be the case. Meaningful youth engagement is central to the success of policies and programmes aimed at improving young people’s health and wellbeing, and can provide young people with opportunities
to develop skillsets they will need as the next generation of leaders.
How does the WHO strive to practice meaningful youth engagement in its work?
The WHO Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research and the Human Reproduction Programme (HRP) strive to apply the principles of meaningful youth engagement, as defined in the Global Consensus Statement, particularly with work
on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (ASRHR).
For example, it put meaningful youth engagement into practice with the WHO and UNFPA-led supplement of the Journal of Adolescent Health. This supplement takes stock of progress made in ASRHR in the
25 years since the International Conference on Population and Development and sets out priorities for the future.
The process of developing the supplement was:
Transparent and informative. Seven young people from Botswana, Fiji, India, Lithuania, Mexico, Pakistan, and Turkey were identified using a structured selection process, in collaboration with the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child (PMNCH). Their selection was based on profiles with specific criteria, the same as for representatives from international organizations, governments,
academia, civil society, and funding agencies.
Rights-based. The young people engaged actively and as equal partners with the other contributors throughout the process. They played a key role in ensuring that young people’s rights were front and center in the content
of the supplement.
Voluntary and free from coercion. The young people were issued formal contracts, assuring co-authorship and compensation for their time and effort. These contracts were developed with and approved by the young
Safe. The contracts spelled out clear expectations regarding their roles and responsibilities, which were fully in line with their abilities. Additionally, throughout the process, they had a focal person they could turn to for support.
Respectful of young people’s views, backgrounds, and identities. The young people began by sharing their individual ideas and perspectives, and then worked collaboratively with each other and with the broader group of
co-authors to pull together key themes and messages and develop the papers. Next, they worked with an artist to develop an illustrated video to bring the supplement to life, highlighting what they felt to be the most important messages of the
The International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA) and the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP), two of the organizations represented by the young people, are contributing to upcoming regional
webinars to disseminate the supplement and draw out its particular relevance for each WHO region.