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1.2 billion people are about to reach reproductive age: don't ignore the youth

With 1.2 billion teenagers about to reach reproductive age, the world stands on the precipice of a population explosion – and a sexual health disaster.

Max Son, 25, headed to London’s high profile Family Planning Summit on Tuesday, joining Melinda Gates and International Development Secretary Priti Patel to see how global decisions around family planning are made.

My mind keeps drifting back to a question I was asked dozens of times at the Family Planning Summit: what does family planning mean to me?

I’m convinced it means freedom – to decide if and when a woman wants to have a child. A simple concept, right? But one intrinsically tangled up with oppression, prejudice and fear.

At the 'clinic' women and girls were turned away for requesting contraception
© Rebekah Lees (Freuds)
At the 'clinic' women and girls were turned away for requesting contraception

Are men stealing the spotlight?

I’ve always felt uncertainty as a man discussing women’s rights and sexual reproductive health rights.

Many of the Summit’s central topics – lack of access to contraception, early childhood marriage, sexual harassment – are things I’m unlikely to ever have to face.

So I thought stepping forward to speak at this event was denying an opportunity for girls and women to take the spotlight and lead the conversation.

But now I’ve realised that it doesn’t have to be that way. By stepping forward, men and women can simply stand together and acknowledge our joint responsibility for a shared future.

I saw how child marriage continued to be the norm, while the community remained silent
© ICS / VSO / Max Son
"I saw how child marriage continued to be the norm, while the community remained silent"

Trial, shame and error in Bangladesh

Last year I spent three months in Khulna, central Bangladesh. During my time there I saw how child marriage continued to be the norm, while the community remained silent. The young feel powerless to challenge harmful traditions and are afraid of the repercussions and isolation they will face if they speak up.

I saw that sexual curiosity in boys was ignored, but persecuted via humiliation when discovered in girls.

At the Family Planning Summit, I got to take part in panel debates and workshops
© ICS / VSO / Max Son
At the Family Planning Summit, I got to take part in panel debates and workshops

I saw an education system that denies sexual education to the young, instead prescribing abstinence. Young people are left to fend for themselves through trial, shame, and error.

I’ve also witnessed first-hand how hungry the young people we work with are for information about family planning and SRHR.

As an ICS team we worked with local young people to form Girls Clubs, where girls could meet, learn, and share their experiences in safe places. This was valuable, but on its own we knew it was unlikely to move the needle of wider public perception.

So we held a community action day and invited officials and health workers to join young people in a frank public discussion on issues of gender inequality, sexual harassment, and child marriage. Young people’s concerns were front and centre stage.

"This fight will be won by young people - both female and male"
© Rebekah Lees (Freuds)
"This fight will be won by young people - both female and male"

Young people at the centre

I saw young people back at the heart of all conversations while at the Family Planning Summit. Ministers, advocates, and youth delegates stressed the importance of reaching and educating the young, as well as the role we have to play in furthering the cause and discussing the actions we can take.

So what now? The movement for universal access to family planning goes on. The UK has committed to supporting 20 million women and girls every year – in the process preventing six million unintended pregnancies and 75,000 still births.

£1.6 billion has been pledged by Asian and African countries to support family planning, with the funds used to fix supply chains and provide a greater variety of contraceptives to those who need it.  By 2020, the aim is to provide 120 million women with access to contraceptives.

Achieving universal access to family planning is an enormous task. While we have great leaders and champions, this fight will be won by young people – both female and male.

In order to make real progress and hit these challenging targets, getting men involved and turning these plans and commitments into action for both genders is vital to our success.