Over 60% of the world's youth live in Asia Pacific region, accounting for about 19% of the region's total population. This translates into more than 750 million young women and men aged 15 to 24 years. As it is, many of them - especially adolescent girls and young women, young migrants and refugees, youth living in rural areas, young persons with disabilities, young people of different sexual orientations - already face a variety of obstacles in their access to education, employment and healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their risks and vulnerabilities of being left behind on these and other fronts.
According to United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), about 18.7 million primary-aged children in the Asia-Pacific are being deprived of their fundamental right to attend school, due to exploitation through child labour, disabilities, poverty, armed conflicts and child marriage. But those who get to go to the educational institutions, are also facing challenges - one of the greatest impacts is due to the closure of schools/ colleges during the pandemic. Being confined in their homes, under lockdown conditions, and not getting to meet friends and peers, is not only affecting their academics but also their mental and psychological wellbeing. While the lockdown has given the opportunity to open the doors for online classes and discussions, having easy access to internet and technology is an issue. Access to digital infrastructure is limited in many countries of the region, like Sri Lanka and Nepal, especially for those living in rural areas.
Sangeet Kayastha, coordinator and founder of Y-PEER Asia Pacific Regional Centre, shares that "In Nepal, some private schools/ colleges are conducting online classes. Despite issues of poor internet services, these students are at least able to connect with their teachers, friends and other experts. But in the case of government schools, most of the teaching has stopped. So the impact has been very adverse on the rural and economically challenged students."
Dakshitha Wickremarathne, co-founder of Youth Advocacy Network, Sri Lanka, further points out that young women and girls have lesser access to internet as compared to the males, and they are being more affected by the pandemic than males, in terms of the already established structural inequalities in the existing patriarchal societies.
impact on sexual and reproductive health
Even in normal times young people across the Asia Pacific region face many challenges in accessing sexual and reproductive health services they need, due to a host of barriers. These include legal barriers requiring parental consent for teenagers, socio-cultural barriers for unmarried sexually active young people, as well as financial and other access barriers. The lockdown has further exacerbated these problems. Even in the few countries where youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services, like counselling and abortion services are available, work at these facilities has been stalled due to the lockdown.
While praising Sri Lanka's strong network of healthcare system and government clinics that provide free reproductive health services, Shelani Palihawadana, Project Coordinator at Youth Advocacy Network, Sri Lanka rues that the youth are unable to access these services due to lockdown restrictions imposed during the pandemic, unless they have a very vital reason. For example, if a young person (such as college student) who is confined in her home, needs to access a pregnancy kit, she has to, by default, go through her parents, but she is often not able to do so.
Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health products has been one of the main problems as supply chains have been disrupted leading to a shortage of contraceptives, sanitary products, etc, especially in rural areas. Even where delivery services are operating, the products are expensive and unaffordable for the majority of young people, she says.
While most youngsters in China have access to the internet, the challenges in accessing various sexual and reproductive health services are no different. As shared by Yueping Guo, core member of China Youth Network, the pandemic has resulted in shortage of menstruation necessities (sanitary pads) in the epidemic areas, difficulty in accessing HIV medicines, lack of access to contraceptives resulting in unintended pregnancies, and increase in sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.
youngsters with disabilities are at more disadvantage
From her personal experience of working with young people living with disabilities, Shelani feels that their problems are more intense. "Domestic violence and intimate partner violence has generally, been on the rise since Sri Lanka went into lockdown in mid-March. But it has been more severe for young people with disabilities. For those living in institutions the main challenge is limited access to care, leading to violation of right to privacy and dignity at times. For example a paraplegic girl who would ideally need assistance from a female staffer, may, out of necessity, have to rely on a male staff member due to the shortage of staff because of the lockdown."
Shelani added: "Young people who are hearing impaired, face huge problems in accessing timely information, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. They can communicate only in sign language, which is most often not understood by others and this becomes a huge barrier." Shelani cites another problem that the sign language used in Sri Lanka, especially with regards to sexual and reproductive health, is flawed in the sense that there are only two signs to indicate a lot many things. Her organization has been working with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to create a sign language glossary, including signs for terminology related to sexual and reproductive health, and they are in the process of incorporating these signs in the curriculum of education for those who are hearing impaired.
youth response, beating the blues
From using postal services to deliver medicines, free-of-charge, at the doorsteps of those in need (especially people living with disabilities) in Sri Lanka, to donating menstruation necessities to hospitals in China, to resorting to use of social media and simple internet platforms (that consume less data) in Nepal and other countries for disseminating information related to sexual and reproductive health among other issues, the youth are at the forefront of beating the pandemic blues during these trying times.
Yueping's organization collaborated with China Family Planning Association, to donate more than 100,000 supplies (for menstruation needs of women and girls) to hospitals in Hubei province - the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also write articles, and make short TikTok videos (which have a large viewership) to help disseminate information related to sexual and reproductive health among young people, like correct use of contraceptives methods, coping with sexual and other forms of gender-based violence, etc.
The Youth Advocacy Network of Sri Lanka is building a database of health service centres and counselling centres currently in operation, and also mapping out which service centres are more youth friendly, so that young people face less barriers to access those services.
Y-PEER is also reaching out to the youth in rural areas and delivering sexual and reproductive health services at the grassroots level in Philippines and other countries.
what after the lockdown?
Sangeet advocates for investing equally in online and mainstream in-person education services, so as to not leave behind a major chunk of students who are unable to access internet services.
Shelani would like comprehensive sexuality education in schools /colleges to be put on track to help youngsters to get accurate and correct knowledge to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health, and prevent spread of disinformation.
Yueping wants governments to pay special attention to the sexual and reproductive health needs of the youth and explore ways and means of providing sexual and reproductive health related education and services online in the future.
There is unanimous agreement that while the youth should work in solidarity and bridge the gap to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people - women and men alike - it is also high time for governments to help build the capacity of the youth so that they can make informed decisions to protect their own health.
(Shobha Shukla is the founding Managing Editor of CNS (Citizen News Service) and coordinator of APCAT Media (Asia Pacific regional media network to end TB & tobacco and prevent NCDs). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or visit www.bit.ly/ShobhaShukla)