“It is culturally difficult for adolescents to talk about that topic.”
That topic is sexual and reproductive health. Across my country, one in four Filipino youth have begun sexual activity before age 18. By the time girls turn 19, four in ten of them are already, or will soon be, mothers. 78 percent of first sexual interactions are unprotected.
There isn’t a better time to converse with adolescents about that topic than now.
Last year, I conceptualised a mobile app to serve as young people’s digital “best friend” through adolescent transition: it would be able to track physical, emotional, and reproductive changes from daily interactions. (It was to be called BES, a local, shortened term for someone’s best friend). The aim was quite simple: to have a constant online bot, or a confidante if you will, that adolescents will be able to interact with. One key important aspect we had to ensure was trust. This application should be trustworthy enough that the information that we share is correct, up-to-date, and will remain private. We can only achieve it by building and sharing that trust with adolescent users over time.
After comments and suggestions which ranged from the most to the less encouraging ones, I realised there was a common trend in the responses I received. I was more surprised not by the criticism against my idea, but by the criticism towards my target audience.
The most common concern? That the mobile app is not culturally fit for my country. It would be challenging, they say, to get adolescents to talk about the topic. There was a need, they claim, to consider parents who will disapprove of the app. It will not work, they stressed, with conservative Philippines.
All of these concerns made me reflect about my app’s ultimate objective: if they can’t find the right reasons to believe and trust in my audience, how will they find the reason to believe in my app? We had hoped that BES would be a youth-led and youth-focused mobile app, as a tangible youth-made solution to improve and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights. I realized that these concerns were reflective of a larger, systemic problem.
Often, other people’s perceptions of young people are inadequate. Blaming their lack of experience, decisions that affect young people are oftenmade for them- not by them or with them. Age-based discrimination is hidden well in our arguments or actions. In reality, young people are more active than ever, finding- or claiming whenever needed- new spaces to push for the change they believe in.
In this case, concerns are based on an unfounded belief that young people cannot properly use the SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights) information that they are given. However, it is no secret that young people are already engaging with sexual activity early on: given the rising cases of teenage pregnancies and STD (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) transmission, there is an urgent need to talk about their reproductive health as part of their education - and young people’s agency over their bodies and their recognition and responsibility of it is paramount in solving these crises. If they are able to use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, all with varying and uncontrolled views on reproductive health, why not provide another avenue - with accurate, verified information - where young people can gather to talk about their concerns on SRHR?
Our uneasiness is based on old ideas and perceptions. We need to think differently: young people can do better and know better - but only if we help them to. We need to make decision-making and solution-building a shared, transformative task between young people and society. In a larger perspective, if we are to make youth-led and youth-focused enterprises work in Asia Pacific, it is high time to establish lasting connections with them. Young people are both the audience and the makers of enterprises. The process begins with trust: trusting the data hard enough because the most affected group are young people - almost half of the world’s population are under 25! - and that we have to equip them as much as we can.
Thinking about this made me realise that I need to treat my audience better, defend them when needed, and look at things from their perspective. It is important that we treat them as mature individuals. It is theresponsibility of anyone who engages with young people, to treat their target audiences with respect and realise that they know better.
Let’s face it: it is culturally difficult to talk about that topic. But so many other factors restrict us and make it difficult for young people to speak out. Let’s not perpetuate this practice. Enterprises need to look at solutions from the perspective of young people. And for those which are youth-focused and youth-led, let’s give them the attention, focus, and the space that they deserve. Let’s finally put our trust in them.