Prioritizing Youth Organizing in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Spaces

In the past week, members from the Canadian chapter of the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP Canada) and the BIPOC Women’s Health Network (BIPOC WHN) sat down for an Instagram Live discussion on youth health equity, specifically the role that youth organizing can play in promoting sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR). 

The sentiments shared amongst young people on the call was nothing short of inspiring. Both of these organizations are shining examples of how youth are coming together to address SRH issues. Youth can therefore not be overlooked within the global public health community.  

The following quotes are a snapshot of the discussion. They’ve been taken from the respective organizations’ Instagram Live titled, “Sexual and Reproductive Health: It’s Our Right!”:

When asked what led Brintha Sivajohan and her peers (Claire Dong & Dilini Kekulawala) to create The BIPOC WHN, Sivajohan explained how it emerged from her research:

“[The BIPOC WHN co-founders] were working on a paper that was looking at whether medical education centres the voices of BIPOC women and how they teach about their bodies and how their healthcare experiences are contextualized in the Canadian system.

One of the big things that we realized is the lack of race-based data collection happening in Canada, just in all sectors, but especially in healthcare…. So, we initially started off applying for a grant because we had this idea with this project that we wanted to do. But then, from speaking to other community organizations and leaders who are working in these spaces, it was apparent that they, as well as a lot of other BIPOC folks, saw a need for an organization, a pan-Canadian organization, that addressed these inequities.”

Erika Dupuis, the Country Coordinator for IYAFP Canada probed further by asking Sivajohan to explain what makes The BIPOC WHN, The BIPOC WHN?

“One of the things that makes [BIPOC WHN] unique is that we are addressing inequities starting at the level of a learner. We’re all learners. The great thing about tackling these inequities from a very early stage… is that you’re able to provide a space for folks to unlearn a lot of the stigma and discrimination that has been centred in many of the ways that medical content is taught.”

So how do young people get started? What should you do if you’re interested in youth organizing? Or SRHR?

“Don’t be afraid,” said Sivajohan. “Don’t think you’re too small to start something, to push an initiative, to push a project.”

She continued: “If you see a gap, it’s likely that a lot of other people see it too, but maybe they don’t have the time to fill that gap, or the resources, or maybe they’re afraid. Don’t be afraid.

Find other like minded people who are interested in helping you organize in these spaces. And another big piece of advice is figure out what organizations are working on these issues. Ally yourself with them and amplify their work, because that’s how you truly make an impact.”

Later in the evening, Dupuis was joined by Elizabeth Dayo who is a member of the reproductive health portfolio within The BIPOC WHN. Dayo spoke of the importance of highlighting pressing issues within the healthcare system which often produce further inequities and barriers to access.

“[Lack of equitable access to healthcare] is due to a whole range of factors. Language and communication barriers. Cultural differences. The historical abuse of what is a very discriminatory health care system. There is a need for care that is both culturally safe and sensitive. Oftentimes the health care system doesn’t always represent the communities that they are serving. So you have this mistrust amongst BIPOC communities towards the system, whether that’s a fear of being misdiagnosed, or exploited, or just receiving, generally, culturally incompetent care. This has shaped how BIPOC communities interact with the health care system.”

Dayo also shared what young organizers need to know before jumping in to SRHR organizing: “[Sivajohan spoke about the importance of networking, partnerships, and identifying gaps] I totally agree with that. You have to stay on top of the current events that are happening and the landscape of reproductive health both internationally and nationally. I think [people] would be surprised to find that some of the things happening in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa, are also being replicated here at home and vice versa. [We] need to find ways to keep informed as much as possible. That can be [done] through your own organizations that you’re involved in or just through social media.”

Dayo continued, and expanded upon what can be done at a community level:

“One of the first steps is to find ways to involve community members in the planning and implementation of policies.To truly meet the needs of BIPOC communities you need to understand the lived experiences of BIPOC people. [So often, healthcare] policy changes are spearheaded by old, white men. [We need] to call for more collaboration with BIPOC folks who have experience navigating the healthcare system. Whether that’s physicians, allied health care workers, patients, and the like. We need to be engaging youth in these policy changes. The biggest advocates for youth health are going to be youth themselves. [But] we also need to be engaging all youth, youth with differing needs, youth from low income families, immigrants, refugees. Engaging sounds like this big word but it doesn’t really have to be. It can [be as simple as] advocacy training for youth, [having youth sit in] policy meetings, [making sure that those meetings] are at dates and times that are also most accessible for youth to attend those meetings.”

Youth engagement in SRHR-related organizations and initiatives has a long way to go. We must continue to confront the consistent and ever growing inequities faced by communities who are excluded and marginalized by misogyny and misogynoir, structural racism, as well as patriarchy and colonialism. To do this, we need the voices of young organizers and individuals, like the folks from The BIPOC WHN and IYAFP Canada to be leading the way in the face of change. A change towards a more equitable and just healthcare system. A change towards greater access for all. A change for young people.

Check out IYAFP Canada or BIPOC WHN on Instagram to watch the full conversation.


February 27, 2021


Erika Dupuis