CONSIDERING ADOLESCENTS AND YOUNG PEOPLE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC By Desmond Nji A. (MSc), ACAP
Desmond Nji, ACAP Focal Point, delivers a speech on an occasion
In an announcement by the Cameroon government on the 17th of March 2020, the operation of all formal education institutions would be suspended. This was one of thirteen early-stage containment measures taken against the novel COVID-19 pandemic. This was an unprecedented reaction amidst an unprecedented time. Like to many, these times were far too queer to me. People were stuck; howbeit, when I thought of the health and well-being of adolescents and young people and the projects my team and I are leading to increase access to health and well-being information and services in Cameroon, I couldn’t help but told myself, we need not be stuck! We would keep going and we would leverage the power of technology, which become essential amongst many services, owing to COVID-19. Many organisations resorted to working from home and connecting virtually. We would utilize the power of technology to connect and work, moving forward. No sooner had I simmered down from the concerns of being stuck than I got overly engaged in back-to-back online meetings particularly on Zoom. These meetings concerned adolescents and young people; and COVID-19 became an additional variable to control for; a pandemic whose impact has been felt by all and sundry, including adolescents and young people.
Over 32% of Cameroon’s population constitutes young people between 10 and 24 years old. Among this age category are adolescents, 10 to 19 years. These adolescents experience physical, psychological and social changes as they grow. They need sound and unbiased information about their health and well-being as well as access to essential services, to support them to thrive and survive. They are a critical sub-group. Investment in their health and well-being is bound to yield positive returns for the society. Though sexuality is a critical element in adolescent growth and development, not many of them have access to age-appropriate education on their sexuality. For instance, under 30% of young people 15-19 years have comprehensive knowledge about HIV and other STIs (UNICEF, 2013). Many of these adolescents live and grow up in settings where parents/guardians do not provide sound information to their children about their sexuality. Worse still, some parents are not aware what to teach. This is a major cause for some of the health and well-being issues faced by adolescents in Cameroon: for instance, about 16.5% adolescent girls get married before 15 years (The Population Council and UNFPA, 2009). This is just one of the obstacles to the extremely invaluable adolescent education (especially for the girl child). Other issues like alcohol and drug abuse abound. Moreover, inadequate disaggregated on these issues mean that they miss being sufficiently prioritized in policy actions.
Zoom on Youth Experiences on COVID-19
Faced with COVID-19, one major impact on adolescents and youth was the disruption of schools for safety reasons. Notwithstanding the preventative measures taken, neither do the processes of growth and development in adolescents stop during the pandemic nor the need for vital information and essential services.
Desmond Nji hands speech to Cameroon Minister of Youth Affairs and Civic Education, Mr. Mounouna Foutsou
I have been leading the Advocating for Change for Adolescents Project (ACAP) in Cameroon since 2017, a flagship project for the health and well-being adolescents and young people. The project was catalyzed by the Advocating for Change for Adolescents toolkit, developed by the Partnership for Maternal, New-born and Chid Health, in collaboration with Women Deliver. Youths in Cameroon were opportune to roll-out this toolkit alongside youths in Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi and India, as pioneer. At the start of the project, we identified the following objectives:
- Derive a country-adapted ACAP toolkit in English and French and launch it;
- Improve data collection tools in Cameroon by designing a harmonized monitoring and evaluation toolkit for the collection of additional disaggregated data on adolescent health and well-being;
- Advocate for the institutionalization of age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in secondary schools using the CSE manual developed by DESERVE .
Cameroon Minister of Youth Affairs and Civic Education, Mr. Mounouna Foutsou delivers speech.
Before leading ACAP, I led two successive projects on age-appropriate sexuality education in Cameroon which led to the development of the DESERVE manual on teaching sexuality education in secondary schools. ACAP was launched on the 12th of August 2018 during celebrations marking the 19th edition of the International Youth Day in Yaoundé in the presence of the Minister of Youth Affairs and Civic Education and officials of UN agencies. It developed the Adolescent Health and Well-being Package (AHWP), consisting of the country-adapted toolkits in English and French, a toolkit for disaggregated data collection on adolescent health and well-being and a CSE manual. The second phase of the project involves the review of these outputs and constitutes the basis for meaningful youth engagement with decision-makers for the use of this package across adolescent milieus like schools.
Cross-section of attendees during 12th August 2018 event in Yaounde including the Minister of Youth Affairs and Civic Education and UN officials
The COVID-19 pandemic has no regard for age or any other human classification; adolescents have thus been infected and affected severely. I couldn’t help but ensure that the review process of the AHWP includes a snapshot of the pandemic, its effects on adolescents and young people in Cameroon and a call to action to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. It was challenging owing to the novelty of the virus; data is scarce but effects are rife. The lockdown was another hindrance to meeting for work. Nonetheless, we harnessed the power of technology to respond to these challenges. I got six youth from Open Dreams to work with the ACAP taskforce in developing a COVID-19 addendum for the ACAP toolkit. We regularly met online and finally developed an addendum that feature among others, the effects of the pandemic on adolescents, response efforts by young people and a call to action for adolescent health and well-being during and after the pandemic.
Members of the ACAP TEAM
Across the country, around 7 million adolescents and youth had witnessed a disruption in their education, an extraordinary phenomenon likewise witnessed in most countries across the globe. Our findings also revealed that there were risks of aggravated abuses on girls as a result of domestic violence; increased teenage pregnancy; idleness and the stress brought about in the process of adapting to the virus control measures. This increases the likelihood of developing mental health difficulties among youngsters. As if these were not enough, young people who already faced inadequate access to SHR services and information could witness severe scarcity due to the stock-out of reproductive health supplies, reduction in the supply of essential services including water, needed for proper hygiene and sanitation. The AHWP has never been this dire! We must meaningfully engage to respond; as part of our civic responsibility.
With ministerial delegation
Notwithstanding, I was also moved by related response measures led by other youngsters: some led educative talks; others learnt how to prevent the pandemic and in turn, influenced their immediate loved ones; some produced buckets with taps, some took part in the production and distribution of hand sanitizers and others produced face masks which became a compulsory wear in Cameroon. All things considered, policy-makers need to ensure constant and increased supply of reproductive health supplies and other essential commodities to reach young people who badly need them amid crisis moments like COVID-19.
I use this opportunity to echo my conviction about meaningful youth engagement: meaningful youth engagement is not window-dressing; it is intended to yield benefits for adolescents’ and young people’s health and well-being. As such, if decision-makers do not engage young people, young people should engage decision-makers through innovative ideas. Taking these accountable actions will surely count towards improved adolescent health and well-being. It is my deep aspiration that all the young people who lay hands on the ACAP toolkit can make a meaningful effort in contributing their bit to the health and well-being of other young people even during times of crisis as the one posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the President of CNYC
 Che Desmond Shu, Ngong Jacqueline, Chi Anestine Lum, Muchuo Clifford, Toulack Kingsley and Chi Njoya.