The first official day of the 3rd annual Women Deliver Conference just wrapped up. Perhaps the biggest takeaway here so far is the incredible presence and engagement of young people.
More than 100 young leaders have travelled from around the world to share their experiences, energy, and wisdom. Each of these young leaders is working to improve the health and well-being of women and girls in their communities. They joined a catalyzing pre-conference event on Monday that inspired Pathfinder's Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Advisor Callie Simon to share, "These young leaders here rock my world. Days like these that make it all worth it."
Young leaders will also be speaking on panels throughout the conference--in fact Yemurai Nyoni from Zimbabwe joined a panel I moderated earlier today on gender and family planning.
Their involvement and energy should inspire all of us here in Kuala Lumpur -- and around the world -- to do more. As Jill Sheffield, President of Women Deliver, said yesterday, "Sometimes we are long on facts and short on inspiration."
Most of us in the sexual and reproductive health field are too familiar with the critical need. The statistics speak for themselves: 1 in 3 women under the age of 18 are married without their consent; young women between the age of 15-19 are more than twice as likely to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth than their peers over the age of 20; and overall maternal mortality is the leading cause of death among young women aged 15-19. In virtually every country in the world, there are disproportionate barriers for young people--both young women and men--when they seek contraception or access to information and commodities to practice safer sex.
We all need the inspiration to get beyond the numbers. And it's here in Kuala Lumpur. It is driven by young people like Yemurai, who spoke so passionately and wonderfully about changing the norms of male masculinity earlier today. His voice and perspective are changing the dialogue at Women Deliver.
He shared with me,
As youth leaders at Women Deliver, we have a rare opportunity to share new ideas and actionable recommendations to people who are willing to listen. We are speaking to development partners to inform the direction of their investment; to governments to enable them to rethink their strategies as they relate to young people's sexual and reproductive health, and to fellow youth to act together in advocating for more responsive programs and policies on sexual and reproductive health for young people. As young leaders at WD2013 we are serving as sources of strategic innovation in the discussions at the conference as stakeholders have recognized the value we can add in answering these difficult questions.
Inspiration and perspective, listening and sharing, goes a long way. In my career, I have often been involved with efforts to feature the health needs of youth and adolescents. In the face of such immense challenges for young people, it is tempting to ask: what can a global conference really do? I can tell you from experience: a lot.
During the early years of the global response to HIV and AIDS, I bore witness to the importance of including young people. There were many years when addressing the epidemic among and for youth was a repeated hot topic at conferences, in global platforms, and in policy papers. Nearly 10 years ago, we all wondered whether all this talk could make an impact in the lives of young women and men.
Now, in 2013 we know that it did. The talk and focus during conferences and events -- including bringing in the unique voices and strengths of young people to the dialogue -- resulted in collective will, understanding, and action. Today, we can celebrate a global decline of more than 25 percent in the global prevalence rate of HIV among 15-19 year olds, in 15 of the 25 most affected countries in the world.
It is time to bring that same will, collective understanding, and action to other key areas of sexual and reproductive health such as access to contraception, comprehensive maternal health care, and realization of each person's right to choose his or her own reproductive future.
Young people's inclusion at all levels of Women Deliver is a reflection of the commitment of the organizers to ensure that young leaders' voices, needs, and potential are highlighted.
So I take hope from the young leaders present in Kuala Lumpur, from the thousands of attendees at Women Deliver, and from the dedication of the many organizers and conveners of the conference, that if we all collectively keep this focus and attention on young people's sexual and reproductive health needs, we will see a difference. We can partner together, inspire one another, engage with one another, take action with one another, and collectively deliver better sexual and reproductive health care among, for, and with young people.