Leave no one behind on global health – we need action, not statements

Young people must be involved in policy making and programming to achieve the global goal of healthy lives for all at all ages.

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) are a global ‘plan of action for people, planet and prosperity’ which nations start working towards this year and for the next 15 years.

The goals aim to strengthen universal peace and eradicate poverty and ensure that they ‘leave no one behind’.

Goal three is about ensuring healthy lives for all at all ages. But what this means in practice and how it can be turned from a catchphrase into action remains in the details that still need to be worked out at a national and local level.

A unique project with a difference

Around the world, organisations, individuals and governments have made commitments and started initiatives to make these goals a reality.

Link Up is a project supported by the Dutch government and implemented by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance which is improving the sexual and reproductive health and rights of thousands of young people in Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda.

The project reaches young women and men living with and affected by HIV aged 24 years and under, with a particular focus on sex workers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. They all experience extreme difficulties accessing services due to high levels of stigma, discrimination, and in some cases, fear of arrest. The strong focus on young people who are highly stigmatised groups particularly affected by HIV makes this project unique.

These efforts are more important than ever. More than 2,400 young people are infected by HIV every day, and approximately 12 million young people will be living with the virus by 2030 when the SDGs end and the next set of global development goals are adopted.

Sharing with a global audience

The International Conference on Family Planning in Bali, Indonesia, which took place in January, provided the opportunity to share work, learn from others and restate commitments for progress in the area of family planning research, programming and advocacy. It also provided young people from Link Up projects to share their work with an international community and learn about young people’s work in other parts of the world.

During the youth pre-conference, some of the Link Up implementing partners organised a side-session called ‘Raising our voices: recognising the diversity of young people and a rights-based approach’ and it was attended by many young Indonesians.

Experiences from Link Up

Rawnak Rokonol, from Link Up Bangladesh, helped facilitate the session and shared experiences from implementing the work. He started volunteering while he was still an undergraduate studying marketing. He is really passionate and enjoys working on the Link Up project, especially because people in his community continue to be affected by HIV as a result of high levels of illiteracy and lack of knowledge in the area of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR). Rokonol said: “Many of my country’s young people are not very educated. They lack basic information about SRHR.”

He works with key population groups affected by HIV, including transgender sex workers and adopts the peer-to-peer approach to communicate about SRHR issues. This approach has proven very effective and helps mitigate some of their challenges.

“I usually face a challenge of speaking to transgender sex workers because they work at night and sleep almost through the day. But the peer educators we train are able to reach them easily to discuss issues around SRHR,” he said. “I just wish to see the life of one person changed. It means a lot to me and I believe that person will go ahead to positively affect the life of another person.”

Female condoms in Burundi

Another youth advocate attending the conference Nadia Ndayikeza from Réseau National des Jeunes vivants avec le VIH/SIDA (RNJ+), part of Link Up Burundi, shared her experience of advocating for more family planning choices for women in her community, including female condoms.

She was inspired to set up the female condom project after seeing a man wearing one as a bracelet, which made her realise many people do not know what they are or how to use them.

The efforts of these young people highlight what it truly means to ‘leave no one behind’ as they involve individuals from highly vulnerable and stigmatised populations. As young people continue to advocate for inclusion in the making and implementation of policies that affect them, it is important to involve youth from key populations.

The International AIDS Conference coming up in July this year in South Africa will involve stakeholders from civil society as well as governments. It will be a key moment to ensure governments are living up to the agreements they signed at the UN General Assembly in September 2015 to work towards the global sustainable development goals by making more than a statement and take action to leave no one behind.

Read: does Uganda need to realign its male circumcision campaign?