Addressing the health needs of youth Yemeni youth: Not lost, just undiscovered [Archives:2007/1098/Health]

October 25 2007

For Yemen Times
Yemeni youth are a huge lost opportunity. Males either plant and chew qat atop some rural mountain area or aimlessly roam the streets of large urban cities, while females are at home, doing chores and delivering babies (in both rural and urban areas).

Although there's some truth to the above statement, it carries a lot of stereotyping and injustice for the broad slice of the population pyramid comprising huge undiscovered potential.

What usually comes to mind when discussing the challenges facing youth are issues like poverty, unemployment and religious extremism. Is this because health is taken for granted as being integral in general development issues? Or is it because there's actually little data on youth health?

Other prejudices against youth are that they don't care about their health, that they're healthy or that they already know enough about their health.

Why youth are important in talking about health is a question with many answers. Youth not only form the largest proportion of the population, they also are the dynamo that should move development processes forward in all fields. High expectations from youth do not mean that they're all ready for this role.

Youth still are considered a vulnerable group social- and health-wise due to the multiple physical and psychosocial transitions they experience during this period. Adolescence particularly and youth is a period that's not so well defined legally or socially and which somehow confuses those in this age group.

Especially in Yemen, it's also a period that plunges one into experiences such as marriage, reproduction and employment at an earlier age than expected. This translates into the fact that Yemeni youth not only worry about pursuing their education, career and fun, youth-related adventures, they also constantly face the dilemma of making important decisions about their health in an environment that doesn't consider such decisions important or that assumes they are already predetermined.

They may not recognize it, but youth are eager to learn more about what keeps them healthier and they're concerned about issues requiring proper health consultation and support. They need to know more about nutrition, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and drug abuse, as well as they want to know about the health consequences of conflicts and migration. They have many unanswered questions!

Due to lack of awareness that it's important that such questions be answered by specialists and in the absence of reliable and trustworthy sources of health information, youth usually rely on their peers and social/traditional myths for their health consultation. Mass media is another information source that may not always be comprehensive and reliable.

A study by the National Population Council on youth knowledge, orientation and information needs1 revealed some interesting information in this area. For example, 73.7 percent of male study samples thought reproductive decisions should be made by the husband alone and 34.4 percent of female respondents thought the same. This reveals the traditional concepts that youth have regarding important health issues such as reproduction, as well as explains the health seeking behavior of many young females when it comes to reproductive health.

Only 57.8 percent of the study sample had heard about human rights, which we assume include the right to make reproductive decisions. Additionally, only 59.2 percent had heard about family planning, which isn't so shocking considering that one-third of the sample didn't know what population growth means!

Nevertheless, the study also revealed some positive facts. For example, 85.9 percent of those who had heard about family planning supported it, which indicates that access to information is vital for behavioral change. Seven out of 10 knew about HIV/AIDS, with little discrepancy between males and females.

Youth identified the media as their main source of information on health issues, in addition to health centers for family planning and health education. This means more should be invested in media to answer youth health questions.

The study also revealed that youth believe in their role in promoting health, particularly the positive role that females can play in this field. Access to information is essential and we can't deny that many programs have been designed and implemented to promote health among youth, although mainly in cities. Education materials and activities were tested in schools and feedback was positive. However, there's the other side of the coin: If youth are better aware of their health, are health providers ready to cater to them?

Youth health-seeking behavior is quite different than that of adults and elderly. Their characteristics as youth put an extra burden on health providers to accommodate their needs. For example, issues of confidentiality, affordability and social acceptability always should be considered when providing youth health services. Additionally, a friendly environment that's appealing and secure for youth, mainly for females, is essential to attract youth into health facilities.

Professional staff should be trained in counseling in order to help youth learn about their needs, their strengths and potential, as well as limitations within their context. Linking health services with empowerment in life skills will increase demand on health services since most youth suffer poor economic conditions.

More importantly, broad thinking should govern youth health programs. Limiting health programs targeting youth to those regarding reproductive health and HIV/AIDS is wrong and actually may cause disinterest in other young people who aren't married or who feel intimidated by such topics.

Many other health challenges face Yemeni youth, including malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition, qat and smoking, to name a few. The key players in this domain aren't only health professionals and centers; parents, teachers, media, peers, youth clubs and associations also are important. Nontraditional partners, such as religious and community leaders and police, also can be active.

Last but not least, youth should own such efforts to promote better health. Their participation is mandatory in order to gain youth confidence and establish accountability. Peer education programs have proven successful worldwide and should be applied in Yemen more comprehensively.

Investing in youth health has a major impact upon productivity, poverty eradication and gender equality, so can we give it more attention?