Omang Agarwal is a Youth Accountability Advocate working with Restless Development India. One of 20 young leaders from youth-led organisations driving change through grassroots accountability, Omang works in low-income classrooms to ensure students have improved access to sexual health services.
Omang started working with Restless Development as a sexual and reproductive health and rights youth advocate in February. Omang works with Restless’ Accountability in Action for Gender Equality project. The project is an 18 month pilot aimed at training, mobilising and connecting young leaders in India and Tanzania around gender equality.
Read on to hear about how Omang works with this network of young people to fight gender inequality in his community.
Do you feel that young people in India have access to adequate sexual health and reproductive rights?
According to a 2014 census, 28 per cent of India’s population is between the age of 10-24. This number is the largest of any country in the world. This number is only increasing.
The needs of young people are gradually mounting and their education and health needs are often unmet.
In most cases, comprehensive national policies that address these development challenges do exist. However, there is a clear gap between the drafting of national policies and strong implementation needed to see them through.
This is further impacted by a political landscape that is more comfortable promoting skill development amongst adolescents and youth. There is less of a focus on health, limited to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), maternal health and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
The Government of India launched the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK scheme or National Adolescent Health Program) in 2014.
The programme emphasises the various channels that can be used to address adolescent health needs including information and services towards curtailing substance abuse, mental health, NCDs and realisation of SRHR.
Through this health professionals, both in urban and rural areas, use facilities and community spaces to reach young people and their families to spread awareness on availing services.
A striking feature of the programme is the presence of peer educators and counsellors to help young people to understand the issues and encourage them to use safe and healthy practices and services.
While all of this sounds perfect, there are still gaps that need to be addressed. The programme is still being implemented so we’re still awaiting results from over 7000 districts. But across these districts only 1 in 5 of them have trained health counsellors.
When I first visited an RKSK health clinic, I tried to understand the depth and knowledge of counselling that health professionals have. However, often they lack the skills and capacity to truly be effective.
I looked further and found that counsellors receive only 5 days of training before being they are professionally called counsellors. This is the same case with peer educators who are able to understand some symptoms and disorders, but not all. They too had been given just 4 days’ training.
What work do you do as a Youth Accountability Advocate?
I visit health clinics – both RKSK and ones which have affiliation or are associated with the scheme – along with other young people. We use checklists issued by WHO, Restless Development and the Government of India to audit these clinics.
Whenever we have the opportunity we also try to speak to every employee of the clinic and potential patients along with community members to understand their knowledge, attitude and practice of SRHR. We also taking note of problems they face and changes they would like to see at their clinic.
We then reach out to community members and peer educators to facilitate an awareness building session on SRHR and Mental Health.
While advocacy – especially on health and gender related issues – have in recent years been taken more seriously, it takes time to implement these changes.
Along with a team of 10 other young changemakers, we use the data collected through these checklists to match with the number of young people who live in districts with RKSK programs and identify those ones under immediate medical threat.
Through primary and secondary data we analyse potential risks associated with their medical condition and the measures that can be taken to improve their health.
Lastly, the team works with educators from social,emotional and medical backgrounds to build a training toolkit for counsellors and peer educators. This toolkit can help further develop counsellors’ capacity to provide youth-friendly services.
While our work within clinics continues, our advocacy work also includes lobbying government to incorporate this toolkit into policy.
How do you engage with community leaders?
When we engage with community leaders, we try to stress that – despite the misconceptions that traditional societies have about young people – we are changemakers and have voices that must be listened to. We are leaders, too.
The first thing we try to highlight is a communal need for knowledge so that we can grow together. The first way we engage with community leaders is by sharing our knowledge and experiences. The second is understanding the experience that they have. Any community dialogue is always a mutual learning experience.
We’re building an environment where community leaders can understand our perspective better. This builds a more cooperative way of forming solutions. Your context and my experience can help us steer the ship in better direction.It’s not your plan versus mine; it’s a collaborative effort.
What do young people say to you about your work?
On a lot of occasions, they say that they are inspired. Though as young people together we’re driving change through the work we do, it’s hard to link the work we do at an urban or global level to the work being done locally. But ultimately, to mirror the saying “think globally, act locally,” change must start at the community level and build upwards.
It can be difficult for people to follow everything, like the SDGs. How can India and the US follow the same goals if the circumstances are so different in each country?
If you’re not too familiar with the language used in policy briefs or at international summits, you might not understand “capacity-building”, how development works, how government or the civil society works and so on.
Once we start to get beyond the language in these environments, we start to help young people associate with the work we are striving towards If most young people don’t understand the language we use in these environments, that’s not a problem. If they fundamentally understand the issues and solutions, these are more important.
How can we engage young people more effectively?
Good engagement doesn’t happen overnight. It requires substantial and concerted efforts. The journey starts with education and concludes with young people securing a place at the table. But you can’t miss any step in between. Providing an understanding of the issues to the people you are working with and building youth capacity are among the most important ones.
The issues of young people are about solidarity. We are not just there to make up the numbers. We are inclusive and take into consideration the ideas of a larger group. Our ideas cross borders and identity boundaries. Our visions are for the future, not just for the here and now.