Rupesh Thapa, ASAP Youth Champion, Nepal

Coming close on the heels of his participation in YCAN’s Youth Advocacy Institute, and a broader, sectoral push to include adolescents in the conversations on SRHR, Rupesh reflects on the impact that a lack of SRHR can have on youth, and the role that they can play in advocacy.

As a Youth Champion, after attending the second National Youth Advocacy Institute in Nepal, I have come to realize the tremendous strength youth have in shaping their own path and destiny, whether be it their dreams, career or be it related to their bodily autonomy.

Asia today has the largest number of young people in its population than it has ever had in history. Youth today are not only present in numbers but are actually contributing to growth and development. They are a heterogeneous group of people with different needs and desires. Ignoring their needs, particularly Sexual and Reproductive Health needs, will hamper their full growth and development and therefore their capacity for contribution to society. Besides which, these are part of their human rights!

It’s not that Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of young people have not been addressed in policy. The first time young people’s SRHR needs were realized was at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, to which our country Nepal is a signatory. As a result of which we have an adolescent reproductive health strategy. However, the proper implementation of these policies is yet to take place.

So what is stopping young people from access to safe abortion services?

Stigma is one of the main barriers that keeps young people from accessing their SRHR and stems from social and cultural values and beliefs. Stigma has its root in the need for patriarchy to control sexuality, particularly that of young women, and maintain its hierarchy in many ways. Many upper and middle-class family stigmatize abortion and emphasize the need for ‘good girls’ to not interact with boys before marriage. Due to a lack of knowledge on gender and rights, at times health care providers as the product of the society they live in, further perpetuate stigma while preventing access to SRHR for young people.  In a country like Nepal, where abortion has been legalized for 15 years, stigma continues to be one of the main reasons for unsafe abortions amongst young population.

So what happens when young people are stigmatized for access to safe abortion?

This pushes young people to go for unsafe services, thus risking their lives and health. Morbidity related to unsafe abortion can cause lifelong disability. Even in legal settings, young women can be economically blackmailed by the clandestine providers. These are just a few of the repercussions of abortion stigma.

So can we end stigma?

Yes, definitely – if there is a problem, there has to be a solution! Stigma has its roots in the culture, religion and tradition which have a long history, and might be difficult to uproot at once but definitely not impossible. We should create awareness about gender differences and how it disproportionately favours one group, neglecting the need and rights of others. We should also be able to change our policy and plans and make it more young people friendly. We should sensitize medical providers, media persons and other stakeholders. Most of the work that the Youth Champions and Asia Safe Abortion Partnership are doing in imparting knowledge about safe abortion through a gender lens goes a long way towards this!

What role can youth play?

Youth are not just the future; they are the agents of change in the present. They are the experts in matters related to them, including their autonomy. Youth should be meaningfully engaged in plans and policies related to their own bodies and sexualities. It’s time that sensitized youth create more awareness in the community and work with other stakeholders in upholding their rights and demanding youth-friendly services.

Youth can fight stigma through social media campaigns like the September 28 campaigns, street demonstrations and so much more.