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.
Lana is a 17-year-old from Bosnia and Herzegovina who works as a volunteer peer educator, supporting other young people to develop crucial life skills relating to SRHR*.
Lana, describe your experience of access to SRHR education, information and care before and during COVID.
In terms of overall SRHR education before and during COVID-19, I was very uneducated. At the beginning, I was 14 years old, so personally, I considered talking about SRHR topics very embarrassing and taboo. I was a kid and did not know that it is totally normal and important to talk about SRHR at that age. I live in a country where it is usually seen as “weird” to talk about SRHR, especially at my age at the time, so I felt like I shouldn’t participate in discussions on the topic. I was very uninformed and took minimal care of myself as regards SRHR, especially during COVID. It was a very hard time for everyone, and I was still finding myself, so it was really difficult for me to put priorities in the right place, especially with everything closed down; I had no access to any kind of SRHR education.
Did anything change for the better for you during the pandemic in terms of access to SRHR? How are things now?
Sadly, nothing changed for the better during the pandemic. I was still just a kid and SRHR was a taboo topic for me and I was very uninformed. Luckily, after the pandemic, I started to realize that it’s totally normal and important to talk about sexual and reproductive health. Now I tend to help everyone who feels unsafe talking about it to realize that it is not taboo, as I used to think, and actually very important. I feel safe in my own body and I make sure I access education about SRHR as much as I need to. I make sure to take care of myself as regards to healthcare and I have been feeling a lot better, happier and safer since.
What was the biggest obstacle/challenge to your SRHR during the pandemic? How could decision-makers/medical professionals have removed this obstacle?
My biggest challenge was overcoming the fact that SRHR is not seen as a normal topic to talk about and cover, especially for a 14 year old. Speaking to a professional, either a medical professional or my parents, would have helped a lot. I would have felt safer talking about the topic and would have realized from a young age that it is a totally normal topic to cover and is important for keeping myself healthy and happy.
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?
Listening. A lot of young people, including me, were afraid to open up. I lacked in-person communication and it has affected my SRHR education a lot. Personally, a heartfelt recommendation to professionals working with young people on this topic is to talk with them as much as they need to and as much as those young people feel the need to talk. I think it is very important for us to get heard and someone listening to our insecurities about talking over a specific topic would help youngsters open up and understand that it is not a taboo topic. COVID has made me realize that, if I have a question or a problem as regards to SRHR, I would want myself to be heard and for a professional to really listen to me and help me. I think it would help other young people a lot.
What is your number 1 recommendation on what is needed to make services more youth-friendly? What difference would this make in the life of a young person like you?
Again, greater availability of professionals in health centres. It is very important for our voices and thoughts to be heard. It is a great way of helping us and making us understand that people really do listen to us and really do want to help us. It would help a lot, like it helped me.
What helped you to become engaged as a peer educator on SRHR? How has this experience been so far?
I have been through a lot of things in life. I want to help people understand that it is okay if we all have our problems but I also want to help people lead their life in the right direction, overcoming those problems. I love helping people. I love seeing smiles on their faces after something that they thought might ruin their day and then overcoming it. It is the most beautiful thing ever. I want to educate people on various topics and help them understand that we, young people, are as much of a person as adults are. We have our own problems too. We also want to be heard. We also want to get educated on topics that are socially labelled as “inappropriate to youngsters”, but are as a matter of fact, just put that way by society and are totally normal to be addressed from teenage years. My experience as an educator has been wonderful. I had managed to help people open up, feel happier with themselves and in their bodies and realize that life is beautiful if you make it your own utopia. I love this hobby of mine and hope to continue it as long as I can.
* SRHR = sexual and reproductive health and rights