Mobilising For Change In The Asia Pacific: An Interview With Sonali
An interview with Sonali Mohapatra from the Network of Asia Pacific Youth. By Rochelle Jones. Resource Net Friday File Issue 248, October 2005
AWID: Tell us about the Network of Asia Pacific Youth and how it relates to young women's mobilisation in the Asia Pacific region.
SM: Representing the experiences and realities of young people from the Asia Pacific region, the Network of Asia Pacific Youth (NAPY) is a network
of young people working for the promotion, protection and advancement of young people's rights, especially young women, and their sexual and reproductive health rights and toward ensuring their meaningful participation and perspectives at all levels of decision-making.
NAPY was officially formed at the Asia Pacific Youth Workshop on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in 2000 to serve as a mechanism for advancing the issues and concerns of Asia Pacific youth. It had its seeds at a gathering of Asia Pacific women in September 1999 where young
representatives expressed concerns over the need for more meaningful inclusion of young women in the meeting's processes. It gained momentum
from the Youth Coalition on ICPD+5, an international coalition of young people which actively lobbied for the inclusion of youth-specific concerns and issues in the field of SRHR during the ICPD +5 review process. Since then, NAPY has been working on a broad range of youth issues in the area of health and rights while maintaining SRHR as a priority area of advocacy.
NAPY believes that the empowerment of young women is necessary for social, economic, political and cultural development and should therefore be seen
as integral to the overall work for women's empowerment. Its focus and strategy is advocacy for young women's rights within the framework of the Cairo Programme of Action, the Beijing Platform for Action and their plus five reviews.
NAPY's general areas of advocacy are:
- Gender equality and equity,
- Meaningful youth participation and perspective in decision-making processes, and
- Young people's access to SRHR information, education and services.
Its specific SRHR priority areas are:
- Early and unwanted marriages, pregnancies and unsafe abortions,
- Diversity of sexualities, and
- Gender-based violence.
NAPY is an exclusive space for young people aged 15-30. With the aging out of its founding members, a new circle of members was drawn from another Asia Pacific Youth SRHR Workshop in 2003. It currently has 14 young women and six young men members from Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India,
Indonesia, Japan, Kyrgystan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand, Tibet and Vietnam, representing the five sub-regions of the Asia Pacific. NAPY membership is on an individual basis, thus maintaining autonomy from adult organizations in decision-making processes within the network. Four youth coordinators now lead NAPY.
AWID: From your experience, what are the key challenges facing young women in terms of facilitating positive change for women's rights?
SM: Even 10 years after International Conference on population and Development where the governments recognized and committed to promote the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, the political will to implement these commitments is lacking. Though effective lobbying by activists from all over the world has led to significant progress, conservative and progressive groups still play the tug-of-war to influence issues related to SRHR. In this context young women and girls often experience the worst consequences as traditionally they are not encouraged to ask questions, are forced to accept the worst as their fate and the decisions for their lives are taken by everybody else except themselves. With the son as a preference over daughters in many countries, young women or girls are practically left without options or choices regarding their own bodies or their lives. Gender roles play a dominant role in ruling the lives of girls, young women and lives of women over the generations in the socio-cultural context.
It is more evident as the youth sexual and reproductive health and rights issues and development of SRHR policies and their implementation face barriers from strong conservative groups. Denial to youth SRHR issues and needs has led to very little or no information, education and services in many countries. As a result young people face dreadful consequences like dangers of early pregnancies and of 15 million adolescent women become pregnant every year. One in every four women that undergo unsafe abortion is adolescent and one in two new persons living with HIV is a young person.
At this juncture, meaningful youth participation is critical to ensuring effective formulation and implementation of policies and programmes that affect them. The clear challenges that we face today are involvement of young people from diverse socio-economic and political backgrounds in decision-making processes. Lack of resources including information, communication, competing interests and responsibilities of studies, family restrictions, social norms inhibiting mobility for girls and young women hinders their participation at all levels of decision making processes and facilitating positive change for women's rights.
AWID: Given these barriers, how are young women mobilising for positive change in the Asia-Pacific region, and are they represented at local, regional and global levels or do they face barriers to full participation?
SM: An analysis of 11 Asia Pacific countries shows that since ICPD and Beijing, countries have acknowledged young people's need for quality sexual
and reproductive health and rights information, education and services to empower then to take informed decisions. However, the challenge remains in
transforming this knowledge into action. All the countries, except Cambodia, have policy statements on adolescent health. However, only India, China, Nepal and Philippines have specific policies on adolescent and youth reproductive health. However, the extent of addressing the youth SRHR in these policies and their implementation varies from country to country.
In such a scenario young people's and especially young women's involvement at levels of decision making is very limited. With the focus of UN, donors
and governments with youth SRHR issues situation has improved. Youth involvement is token and their perspective is missing in the programmes. It is the non-young people who decide what is good for the youth and young women.
Young women are therefore coming together in groups, are networking with each other and trying to organize themselves in order to address these
issues in various platforms. Regional networks working on international advocacy help bring out the voices of young women from the ground.
More effort and support and encouragement needs to be extended from the established/adult organizations, donors and international agencies as well
as other youth led groups. Most important is mainstreaming the youth participation in a structural and institutional manner.
AWID: What do you think young women really need in order to fully engage with international-level processes of change?
SM: Young women have their own perspectives towards issues concerning them. However, they often lack the confidence in expressing themselves as they feel uncertain and fear criticism from the older feminists. They need capacity building in order to fully engage with international-level processes.
AWID: How do you see the future for women's rights?
SM: The future of women's rights is bright and is gaining strength every day with the younger women joining hands with their older counterparts. It is
more sharing of spaces than stepping out to let the younger generation take over. It is also growing stronger with the multi-sectoral linkages which are
building and gaining strength between the Local, National, Regional and International women's rights movement. We are not fighting our battles alone or in isolation, we the women from multiple backgrounds are coming together in solidarity to give and take strength from each others struggles.