When Hélėne Hlungbo speaks about the need for youth access to family planning services, she has a very determined demeanor. “I am a young woman and I am an activist, and as such I have the right to benefit from sexual and reproductive health services and to know and defend my rights to these services,” she told Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

Hélėne Hlungbo speaking at the OP annual meeting opening plenary.
Hélėne Hlungbo speaking at the OP annual meeting opening plenary.

The message is delivered with the voice of someone who seems to repeated rebuffs but who doesn’t easily give up. Hélėne is from Benin and is one of a few dozen Young Ambassadors for youth access to family planning who are sponsored by the Ouagagoudou Partnership (OP), a nine-country alliance of francophone West African countries seeking to address their citizens’ substantial unmet family planning needs.

Collectively, the countries have pledged to add 2.2 million more family planning users between 2015 and 2020. This is a tall order, and Fatimata Sy, director of the OP Coordination Unit based in Dakar, Senegal, told attendees at the OP annual meeting that if current growth trends continue, the nine member states will fall short of their collective goal.

Sy emphasized that engaging youth and facilitating their access to family planning (FP) is a key element to achieving the target. Why? Seventy-eight percent of women in the OP countries become sexually active before they reach the age of 20 and marriage before that age is also very common. Numerous obstacles to FP exist for these young women, including cost, consent laws for minors or the unmarried, and cultural and religious stigmatization—leading to a paltry average of 8.4 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 19 who use modern forms of contraception in OP countries.

The OP region also includes countries with some of the highest birth rates in the world. Niger has the highest at an average of 7.6 children per woman (the total fertility rate). Benin has the lowest rate of the nine countries at a still-high 4.7 children per woman. The family planning stakes are high in this part of the world, given that if nothing changes, the populations of many of these countries will roughly double (triple in the case of Niger) by 2050—an awful lot more people for these countries to feed, educate, and employ.

Enter the Young Ambassadors (YAs), a dynamic, highly motivated group who advocate on behalf of their peers from a first-hand perspective. Many have faced sexual and reproductive health challenges themselves, or have seen friends and family suffer as a result. It is challenging for them to get their voiced heard, given that many countries do not place much value on the views of their younger citizens. The OP is trying to change that, and to support their efforts, PRB has been working with the YAs since July to develop compelling advocacy communication tools. The tools, which include a video that was debuted Dec. 13 at the opening plenary session of the 2016 OP annual meeting, are funded as part of a broader project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project is led by the YAs themselves who determine key messages and preferred formats for delivering them.

The Young Ambassadors prepare to present at a workshop during the 2016 OP annual meeting in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire.
The YAs prepare to present.

At a workshop during the 2016 OP annual meeting in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire, PRB staff showed about 20 YAs a customizable, PowerPoint-based advocacy presentation they can use as a visual aid when they try to convince decisionmakers to enact and implement better FP policies for youth.

PRB policy analyst Stephanie Kimou explained how to use the presentation, and the YAs did a series of exercises to help them think about how to frame the key messages to fit their national contexts and what types of opportunities they might have in the short term to use it.

PRB’s Stephanie Kimou explains the YA advocacy presentation tool.
PRB’s Stephanie Kimou explains the YA advocacy presentation tool.

In many cases, the YAs are part of broader networks in their countries and saw ways to leverage these networks to spread the word about the presentation.To be sure, the YAs do not need much assistance in being forthright and compelling speakers; indeed, they took full advantage of their allotted time at the annual meeting’s opening plenary to make it loud and clear that they demand action from their countries’ officials. PRB’s role is to provide some additional tools they can use to get their valid points across.