We spoke to young people from the Western Balkans about how their access to sexual and reproductive health and rights was affected by the COVID pandemic, and asked them about their vision for re-designing a more youth-friendly future in which young people can flourish.
Greis Osmani is a 23-year-old from Tirana, Albania. She is a medical student, peer educator and activist for young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Greis, describe your experience of access to SRHR* education, information and care before and during COVID.
Before the pandemic, I used to take part in a lot of workshops, projects and volunteer work in national NGOs. As a volunteer, especially with the Albanian Center for Population and Development (ACPD), I was trained in subjects like abortion stigma, gender equality and rights, contraceptive methods and sexuality education. I was well informed about other topics such as HIV/AIDS. The first year of the pandemic, the focus of the government and NGOs etc shifted more towards COVID and general health issues, not related to SRHR. Step by step, young people and the general public started getting used to online platforms, which gave us other opportunities to hold trainings online and carry on sharing safe information with other youth.
Did anything change for the better during the pandemic in terms of access to SRHR?
I believe it had pros and cons. First, we had to learn how to properly use new digital platforms and tools such as Zoom, Google Classroom and Meet, and add more interesting activities such as Murals and Quizzes. This made our online experience much more fun, aside from basic informative meetings, and we continue to use these platforms. Online platforms enable us to create a broader network of young people from different countries who connect more quickly, and for free, to share personal experiences as SRHR activists and empower one another. We are still learning and developing digital communication skills. We hope the moment will come when all young people feel comfortable using online tools, without facing a single barrier.
What was the biggest challenge for SRHR during the pandemic?
One of the biggest challenges I personally faced was the inability to express myself freely online and completely share personal experiences. Face-to-face meetings connect young people more with one another. One feels freer to talk with peers in person rather than share with those you may never meet in real life. It’s hard to break the ice in digital meetings that make people feel uncomfortable speaking directly and opening up.
Also, it is very important that, as educators, the things we share in theory with other peers come to life in practical ways. For example, online we can’t distribute free condoms, and it’s harder to teach young people how to use them correctly.
What lessons should governments and professionals who work with youth learn from the pandemic about how to look after young people’s health and wellbeing in a crisis?
They need to understand the realities of young people’s access to SRHR, the gaps we face, our needs etc. They need to carry out more surveys to see how young people are coping with all the changes since the pandemic. They need to give us youngsters more opportunities to raise our voices, to engage in activities, to work as volunteers, to give us more hope for our future. It’s extremely hard for a teenager to stay at home distancing him/herself from everyday life and joy. COVID-19 was devastating for young people and had a big impact on their perspectives on life and desire to do more. Mental health was affected. Young people need to be able to maintain a healthy life, to experience happiness, and to invest in their future to become good doctors, lawyers, engineers and so on, to build a better lifestyle. Social connections and communication are key to mental health - that’s why creating safe platforms with adequate and necessary information for young people’s needs is crucial for their well-being.
What is your number 1 recommendation on what is needed to make services more youth-friendly?
For services to be youth-friendly, it is crucial to build trust between young people and health professionals. Youth-friendly services are included in our primary health care package and are provided by other private institutions and NGOs such as ACPD through its own clinics. However, trust and communication need to be built.
The role of health mediators is also very important, especially if they are young themselves. This facilitates communication with youth as it is easier to share with someone your age; you feel more understood and can open up when the service is presented in a friendly way. It’s also important to create positive environments where young people can engage with each other, for example reading or studying in groups to make it less hard for them to express their true selves. It makes a big difference when a young person finds a reliable service, and seeks help when they are feeling lost. So social workers and innovative communication methods in my opinion are the key.
Tell us about your experience as an activist for young people's health and rights!
My experience has been great. It started in high school taking part in a social experiment and then I got more interested in topics like human rights, comprehensive sexuality education and SRH. I have learned so much from people I met during my activism years, I feel like my public speaking skills have gotten better with time. I have found subjects like SRHR which I feel are close to me because I’m about to become a doctor next year and my contribution started long ago in young people’s health. I’m constantly inspired by different projects to keep doing what I am doing now and create a stronger and empowered future for next generations here in my country Albania and beyond. I am happy that I have found role models in this journey of mine, I have heard speeches that are quotes for me to live by. I am grateful that there have been individuals that have pushed me to do better and engage more. I’m looking forward to the next chapters...
* SRHR = sexual and reproductive health and rights
Interview conducted by Marjo Rabiaj, a member of the regional youth group of the IPPF EN project Youth Voices, Youth Choices, funded by MSD for Mothers