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PaRD Health Work-stream at the Women Deliver Conference 2019, Vancouver/ Canada

Promoting Resilience for Optimal Adolescent Health: Dialogue with Faith Actors and Governmental entities

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On June 5th, the PaRD Health Work-stream convened a side event during the Women Deliver 2019 Conference on “Promoting Resilience for Optimal Adolescent Health”. The side event, moderated by Mary Vigil from USAID and Stefan Sengstmann from World Vision, saw representation from both FBOs and governmental entities. Experts from USAID, Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), Islamic Relief Canada and a religious leader from Kenya contributed to the discussion. The different entities shared examples of adolescent-oriented interventions, specific problems the interventions seek to address and outcomes of these programmes. These presentations were then followed up by questions from the audience and discussions around the matters raised. 

With about 8000 participants, the 2019 edition of the Women Deliver conference focused on “Power. Progress. Change.” Under this theme, discussions addressed power, and how it can drive – or hinder – progress and change. 

Woman Deliver started as a conference in 2007. It evolved out of the engagement of Jill Sheffield, who founded the NGO Family Care International in 1987 as on of the first international organisations specifically to focus on women’s (sexual and reproductive) health. Due to the huge success of the conference, which have been held every three years since then, Women Deliver became an organisation of its own. It is now a global advocacy organisation that works to generate political and financial commitment for achieving gender equality, health and rights of girls and women. 

Forty-two percent of the global population is under the age of 25, with nearly half of the world’s youth living in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, young people across the globe continue to face an array of critical health and life challenges including nutrition, communicable and non-communicable diseases, injuries, violence, mental health issues and substance abuse. Access to adequate health care throughout the lifespan and to accurate information continue to pose challenges, leaving most adolescents at risk and unable to achieve optimal health. Likewise, protection of vulnerable youth from exploitation and abuse also remains a challenge.  

In many low-income countries, religious/faith-based organisations (FBOs) reach remote areas and provide the majority of local infrastructure and social services like health and education. Their influence and close, long-standing engagement in communities gives FBOs ideal opportunities to serve their communities, including promoting health and supporting positive social and cultural factors that can contribute to good health outcomes and help to build resilience in young people. In order to promote and ensure the wellbeing of adolescents, all stakeholders must be included in such discussions. It is against this background, that PaRD convened the side event, aiming to promote dialogue and knowledge exchange among different entities.  

Valerie Huber, Senior Advisor from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, shared experiences from the USAID optimal health conceptual model that addresses adolescent issues throughout the lifespan, and aims to ensure that young people are healthy, resilient and thriving. She stated that an effective public health model is one which could accelerate the path to eradication of even the most difficult health challenges by focussing on continual improvement. She further urged the audience to be critical of public health approaches that seek only to reduce risks, but never to empower a population to eliminate the risk.

Ellen Starbird, the Director of USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health, emphasised that adolescence is a critical stage of rapid physical, neurological, emotional and social development transition; and that it is important to invest in early adolescence. She pointed out that the seeds of future well-being are sown in adolescence. At this stage, many young people fall into risky behaviours like smoking, alcohol and other drug abuse, early sexual debut, absenteeism and school dropout, HIV and other sexual transmitted infections, pregnancies, child marriage and mental disorders. However, this could also be a period where adolescences thrive. She shared the example of USAID’s adolescent-focused programme, “The Passage Project” which tests and scales up gender synchronised and multilateral interventions that promote collective change through media, advocacy measures, campaigns and discussions within social networks and among leaders. The Passage Project capitalise on life course transitions. It focuses on structures, systems and networks. In addition, she shared insights from the Gender Roles, Equality and Transformation (GREAT) project that is being implemented by the Institute for Reproductive Health, Pathfinder International and Save the Children. The project uses interventions such as school-based club activities, community games and radio discussions to link individual, school. family and community to health services. 

Sharon Tobing, Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) International shared lessons learnt by ADRA’s Youth Development Programme that has been implemented in Nepal, Mozambique and Peru. The programme focuses on a holistic approach to support young people’s wellbeing (awareness of “faring well” and “acting well”) exemplified by justice, compassion and love. Similar approaches have also been employed in ADRA’s “ciicle of courage model”, which is based on principles of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. Through the Pathfinder Youth Programme, which encompasses young people of ages 10-18, these values are being instilled into young people. Sharon emphasised the significance of creating a strong and stable social background for young people as a way to encourage prevention of risky behaviours. 

Amina Arab, Islamic Relief Canada also shared insights from the Islamic Relief programme implemented especially in fragile settings. In Jordan, for example, Islamic Relief has been providing safe spaces for women and children. The programme supports young people experiencing psychological problems, victims of gender-based violence and torture victims. Through such programmes, relationships between adolescents and their families have been strengthened. In addition, women and girls can access safe spaces, feel empowered and be protected from violence. 

Rev. Josephine Ogola, a religious leader from Kenya, shared practical examples where religious leaders are involved in community health. She has been involved in World Vision’s “Channel of Hope” initiative. This initiative is part go an interactive process, where faith leaders are engaged to become active participants in the well-being of their communities, especially in family planning and HIV initiatives. She pointed out that religious leaders are the gatekeepers of they societies and the key is not to change people’s doctrine but to share information that will trigger social changes. 

The speakers concluded by emphasizing the importance of implementing holistic approaches throughout the lifespan of the projects as well as the importance of involving the entire community in such interventions.