Adolescence is a period of biological, physical, and cognitive changes and is accompanied by unique sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs. Adolescents are resilient, resourceful, and energetic. Making up the majority of the world’s population, their future is heavily influenced by structural factors, such as national wealth and income inequality, and by access to education and employment. It is also determined by social norms and critical power relationships operating at personal, family, and community levels. Collectively these structural and social forces may impede or accelerate the fulfillment of their sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Cognizant of the competing demands on adolescents, efforts should be made to offer opportunities to build on their capacities to promote their empowerment in this process.
The primary principle of working effectively with adolescents is to promote their participation, partnership, and leadership. Due to the barriers, adolescents face when accessing SRH services, they should be involved in all aspects of programming, including design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. The emphasis should be on the need to engage adolescents in all stages of the program cycle, not just for tokenistic participation. Programs should develop creative strategies to foster inclusion and participation from the heterogeneous population of adolescents. Often it is the more privileged, “visible” adolescents that are consulted rather than those who are at particularly increased risk of being excluded.
Given this situation, it is especially important to adopt strategies that build upon strengths and capacities and provide reasonable accommodations for those who would otherwise not be able to participate to their fullest ability, such as adolescents with disabilities, among others. It is helpful to identify adolescents who have served or can serve as leaders or peer educators in their communities. These adolescents can help address the needs of their peers during program design and can assist with implementing activities, such as condom distribution, peer education, monitoring of adolescent-responsive health services, and referrals to gender-based violence counselors. Services will be more accepted if they are tailored to needs identified by adolescents themselves. Adolescents may be helpful in addressing their needs, for example, by identifying culturally sensitive locations to make condoms available.
Secondly, understanding the cultural context and creating a supportive environment is critical to advancing SRH services for adolescents, as they may be affected by community values regarding ASRH. Communities may frequently become especially protective of cultural norms and the process of socializing adolescents when an emergency occurs.
It is therefore, very important to make priority SRH information and services available, including for adolescents, at the onset of the humanitarian response. As soon as possible, focus on involving communities in issues that affect adolescent health, as this can lead to more sustained, positive health impacts. Community members, including parents, guardians, teachers, health care providers, and religious leaders, must also be consulted and involved in developing programs with and for adolescents.
Let’s always remember that, adolescent participation and engagement is key in addressing and improving the SRHR of adolescents.
Author: Augustine Kumah, PhD Student
Centre of Excellence in Reproductive Health Innovation (CERHI)
Department of Community Health, University of Benin
Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria.