Youth make strides for reproductive health in Guatemala

Youth activists from Incide Joven. Photography courtesy of Incide Joven
Youth activists from Incide Joven. Photography courtesy of Incide Joven

In Guatemala, very few young people have access to quality reproductive health care and sexual health education. Only 44 percent of women of reproductive age use any kind of contraceptives. The maternal mortality rate—the proportion of pregnancies that end in the mother’s death—is the second worst in Latin America and is especially high among indigenous women. Tragically, most of these deaths are from conditions that can be easily treated or prevented; unsafe abortion is among the top causes of maternal death.

Without sexual health education and reproductive health services, Guatemalan youth remain especially vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Many researchers believe high-quality sexual health education could play a key role in preventing these and other serious harms, including sexual violence and forced marriages. (Some young women marry against their will; their families often demand this practice because of cultural norms, including a desire to control the young woman’s sexual behavior.)

Empowering youth to push for new laws and meaningful change

AJWS grantee Red de Jovenes para la Incidencia Política (Incide Joven) is uniting youth around the country to become vocal advocates for social justice issues that affect their lives—with reproductive health and gender-based violence topping their list of priorities. Founded in 2005, this Guatemalan network of youth-led organizations quickly became the first NGO in Latin America to successfully lobby a national government for science-based sexual health education in all public schools. The group is currently monitoring the roll-out of this new initiative, making sure that the Guatemalan government fulfills its promise.

In tackling this issue, Incide Joven is giving its young members an education in legislative advocacy. After carefully monitoring the Ministries of Public Health and Education to determine what actions they were taking to promote sexual and reproductive health, the youth launched an advocacy campaign calling for a new program focused on youth and adolescents. The Ministry of Health listened to their call and launched this program in 2010.

Since then, Incide Joven youth have set their sights on pushing the government to establish a permanent council of reproductive health policy in Guatemala’s national Congress. These young activists keep a close watch on developing laws and policies that could shape sexual health education and services throughout the country—and they speak out whenever misinformation and harmful policies start to take root.

Cultivating a new generation of socially conscious leaders

In the process, Incide Joven’s young members are becoming engaged, educated citizens. By promoting sexual health and rights and pushing for legislative change, they are learning lasting lessons in how to take political action to stop injustice. Many of Incide Joven’s members have developed a life-long sense of civic responsibility and a passion for advocacy. Some took action just after the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the genocide conviction of former President Ríos Montt, calling on the government to ensure justice for his crimes against the Mayan people.

By politically engaging a new generation, Incide Joven isn’t just improving sexual health and rights. The organization is developing future leaders who believe in a more inclusive, less corrupt Guatemala—and who have the skills and experience they’ll need to create it.