At the age of 11, I used to play with a girl near my home in the eastern part of Sri Lanka. One day, all of a sudden, the girl didn’t come to play. I was wondering why and asked my friend where she is. He replied, “She is a ‘big girl’ now.” That is the local term we use in Sri Lanka when girls reach puberty. A few weeks later, I saw her. There was no difference in her appearance. I asked the same friend, “You said she is a big girl, but she looks the same.” He replied, “She is mature now and ready to be a mother. If you touch her hand, she will get pregnant.” I was afraid to touch her hand, then, even when we were playing because I didn’t want to be a father at a young age. This is the reality of young people’s sexual and reproductive health (SRH) in Sri Lanka. I don’t feel that anything has significantly changed since then. 

We don’t have comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education in schools. We also don’t have youth-friendly health services. Most of the time, young people get information on SRH from peers. Sadly, the curiosity of young people can sometimes drive them to pornography, which is an inaccurate and misleading way of getting information. Due to the lack of youth-friendly SRH information and services in Sri Lanka, condom use - the best way to protect from HIV and STI’s - is a mere 6%. The current use of contraception is only 68%. This means that there are many unplanned pregnancies and between 125,000 and 175,000 abortions are performed annually. Personally, I have many friends who have experienced an unsafe abortion and struggle with other SRH issues.  This made me want to do something. It pushed me to activism. Sexual health has become my passion and profession.

I started my SRHR activism at the grassroots level. I got the opportunity to work with a variety of young people, including marginalized youth, sex workers, people living with HIV/AIDS, and young people with disabilities. I realized that the SRH of young people with disabilities is a huge issue and no one is actually working on this in Sri Lanka. Young people with disabilities have the same sexual and reproductive health needs as other people. Yet, they often face barriers to accessing information and services.

This issue deserves particular attention because it has been so widely and deeply neglected. I couldn’t find any reference to the SRH of young people with disabilities in the National Health Policy for Disability, National Youth Policy, or National Health Policy of Sri Lanka. There is no platform for young people with disabilities to raise their voices.  I strongly believe in the power of meaningful conversations and I feel that there is no meaningful conversation happening in Sri Lanka right now regarding the sexual and reproductive health of young people with disabilities.

Being a WCD Ambassador gives me the power to talk about the untold stories of young people with disabilities’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.  I am ready to carry out a visual media advocacy campaign using digital storytelling methodology to emphasize the importance of recognizing the sexual and reproductive health of young people with disabilities in my country. The main objective of this project is to initiate meaningful discussions among young people, policymakers, and key decision-makers on the challenges that young people with disabilities face in accessing SRH information and services.

I am calling my project ‘”It’s Not a Different Sex - Stories of Young People with Disabilities.” I am ready to tell you the untold stories of our friends with disabilities. It is time to do something about their SRH. What will YOU do?

About World Contraception Day:

In support of World Contraception Day and Women Deliver’s Young Leaders Program, Women Deliver and Bayer will work in partnership on a three-year World Contraception Day (WCD) Ambassadors Project. The project equips young people with the skills they need to collect and share digital stories about young people’s SRHR and access to contraception in their home countries. The project includes a storytelling and digital media training, a seed grant, and advocacy opportunities for the Ambassadors to showcase their work at the international level. 

SRH issues source: Adolescent Sexual & Reproductive Health in Sri Lanka: A Situational Analysis (UNFPA) 2012

Comment