What do young people want?
They want knowledge.
They want knowledge about health. They want simplified messages. They need their info in a good visual format; they want it to be short and punchy. They want a tangible vehicle for youth to create real action—they want platforms and access to leaders—now. They want to encourage other youth to advocate for health rights.
They want power.
And they get it sometimes by text-bombing government officials, admitted Margianta Surahman Juhanda Dinata, hipster youth advocate, project coordinator for Young Health Programme at Lentera Anak Foundation in Indonesia, and featured speaker at the NCD Child and NCD Alliance side event “The Convention on the Rights of the Child & SDG 3” held during World Health Assembly week. And they want to “empower all”, according to the first output of the Global Forum on NCDs, Children & Youth. “We just want to have a seat at the table,” said Chantelle Booysen, a University of South Africa law student who volunteers in several global mental health advocacy roles. Dr. Stefan Peterson, Chief of Health at UNICEF, quipped “But if you don’t have a seat at the table then you have no rights. The door is shut in your face.
But five young leaders did push open the door of power and stood center stage to talk about non-communicable diseases (NCDs) just outside the gates of the United Nations within earshot of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
When pelted with rapid-fire questions from Dr. Peterson, who is fascinated by the concept of community dialogue and what one can learn by questioning stakeholders, they realized they did want health, not just healthcare. He was the only gray-haired speaker on the floor, and he avoided standing in the spotlight, instead beaming the young men and women with short provocative questions as he zipped about the room, leaving the younger crew to answer more thoughtfully as they stood as pillars up front.
One idea born from the Global Forum on NCDs, Children & Youth and adopted at this venue was the concept that the world should recognize young leaders as essential partners for NCD prevention and control and ensure their participation in global NCD advocacy and policy campaigns, consultations, and coalitions.
George Msengi, NCD Child Governing Council member, Founder of the Young Professionals’ Chronic Diseases Network Tanzania, and 4th-year medical student in Tanzania, spoke of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3: ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages, adding “we cannot talk about health without [talking about] the topic of NCDs. We might think of NCDs as [an issue of] older generations, but it is not.”
After Kenyan Joab Wako, Founder and Executive Director of Transplant Education Kenya, and recent kidney transplant recipient, contrasted his teenage transplant story to a peer of his who has not been able to access a transplant, he asked “How can we engage people at a high level?”. Dr. Peterson answered him, and all the youngsters of the world, by revealing “Don’t wait for me to listen. Make me listen. Tell me. Grab the power. Don’t knock politely on my door and wait for me to answer.”
Pressing the young speakers further, Dr. Peterson challenged, “You represent youth. How do you reach your civil servant? How do you get their attention? Do you twist them by the Twitter?”
NCD Child captured attention by opening, featuring, and closing their advocacy session with the stories of youth, told by youth. Margianta, who also serves as the Spokesperson for Youth Movement for FCTC in Indonesia promoting the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, highlighted that cigarette use is a contributing factor to NCDs. He believes that his job is to tackle NCDs and to increase youth participation in policy because tobacco use and exposure in Indonesia and the Global South is so high. This was echoed by crowd member Miss Hanin Odeh, from Jordan, who e-mailed me a Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) fact sheet after the event. GYTS is conducted every few years in a variety of countries; in her country in 2014, 24.4% of students 13-15 years of age currently used any tobacco products and 67.4% of students were exposed to tobacco smoke in the home.
The event boosted the launch of the day, a policy brief entitled Young People Will Transform Global Mental Health, released by The Young Leaders for The Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development and others, spotlighting the global campaign My Mind Our Humanity to disseminate The Lancet Commission’s report on the topic and to call for increased financial investment in early intervention and prevention of mental ill-health, the leading cause of disability in 10- to 24-year-olds. The briefing tool is meant to help adolescents and young adults start and strengthen conversations with their government representatives. “Take this to your government,” implored Ms. Booysen, who began facing and conquering mental health challenges in her own life and family as a teen.
Serving as MC of the event, in a demonstration of NCD Child’s “walk-the-talk” mentality, was Chair-Elect, Dr. Marie Hauerslev, a newly graduated physician, currently completing her rotations and training in Children & Youth Psychiatry in Denmark. She set the stage to talk about the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the right to health all over the world, but Dr. Errol Alden, President, International Pediatric Association and retired CEO of the American Academy of Pediatrics (organizations which co-organized the event) called out from the audience that the CRC has been subsumed by the SDGs.
I don’t know if the youthful speakers ever actually noticed it, but NCD Child is so dedicated to promoting young leadership that their current Chair, the wise, experienced 30-year veteran American pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, Dr. Mychelle Farmer, never even assumed the podium.
The youth had the knowledge, held the power, and took back health for themselves. Now, let’s see how they share this with their generation and the next:
This blog post was written by Elizabeth Montgomery Collins, MD, MPH, DTM. Dr. Collins is a member of the Global Health Council’s President’s Advisory Council and has served on several occasions as an individual delegate to the World Health Organization Executive Board meetings and the World Health Assembly.