Veerle Dams's Interview with The Youth PACT's Kaushal Ranasinghe

Veerle Dams's Interview with The Youth PACT's Kaushal Ranasinghe

March 4, 2024

Veerle Dams, our amazing advocacy co-ordinator and SRHR-hero was interviewed by youth-champion Kaushal Ranasinghe at the ICPD30 Geneva conference. Want to learn more about the ICPD process? The full written-interview is below.


Please provide a brief information about you, your organization and work? 


My name is Veerle Dams, I am 27 years old and work as Advocacy Coordinator at CHOICE for Youth & Sexuality. CHOICE is a professional youth-led organization that advocates for the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for and with young people globally. CHOICE's vision is that all young people have the power to make decisions about their sexual, reproductive & love lives!


My main responsibilities as Advocacy Coordinator include: 1) representing CHOICE at national and international advocacy processes of the UN Development and Human Rights processes in New York, with a focus on SRHR and SOGIESC; 2) supporting youth activists from our programs in their international advocacy efforts towards the UN; and 3) partaking and representing CHOICE in Dutch national advocacy on SRHR.


What specific actions or policies has your government taken to uphold SRHR commitments, as outlined in the ICPD agenda, and how are they being implemented to ensure youth inclusivity and access to comprehensive services in your country?


Central to the ICPD agenda are three transformative results for SRHR, also called the ‘three zeros’. These include zero maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning and contraceptive methods, and zero gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices. Since the last global review of the implementation of the ICPD agenda - the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 in 2019 - the Netherlands has taken several actions to uphold these specific SRHR commitments:


- In 2022, for example, the Netherlands removed the compulsory five-day reflection period for accessing abortion services and in 2024 access to the abortion pill via general practitioners will (finally!) be established.


- In 2019, a five-year program was launched in which the Public Health Services (GGD) in the Netherlands offers pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and care to people at an increased risk of HIV infection


- In 2021, the Netherlands launched a four-year multisectoral strategy to prevent, combat, and respond to sexual violence and sexual transgressive behavior. Currently, the Netherlands is also in the process of adopting a consent-based definition of rape and sexual assault in our national law.


Despite this progress, there is still much to gain before achieving transformative change. For example, abortion in the Netherlands is still listed in the Penal Code. Even though a citizens’ initiative recently has asked the Dutch parliament to remove abortion from criminal law, arguing it is a form of medical care and not a crime, the majority of Dutch parliament unfortunately voted against this. Removing abortion out of the Penal Code will be an important next step towards breaking the stigma, increasing accessibility of safe abortion services, and further decreasing maternal mortality and morbidity. Furthermore, even though the national PrEP program has visibly decreased the number of HIV infections in the Netherlands, the waiting lists for the trial are long and accessibility is limited to key populations (groups of people who have a higher risk for getting HIV). This also applies to the free STI services that are offered by the Public Health Services (GGD) in the Netherlands, where long waiting lists and high costs of alternative services limit the overall accessibility, specifically for young people. Finally, most contraceptives, including the IUD, the contraceptive pill, and the hormone rod, are only reimbursed until the age of 21. This can place a financial burden on young people with a uterus and obstruct their ability to decide if and when to have children.


In light of the ICPD's 30th anniversary, what progress has been made in terms of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in our educational systems, and what challenges remain in promoting evidence-based and youth-friendly CSE across Europe?


In the Netherlands, CSE is mandatory since 2012. This means that all primary and secondary schools, including special education, must provide information and education on sexuality and relationships. Although there are guidelines schools need to adhere to and some really good and comprehensive curricula exist, schools still have a lot of freedom in deciding how they would like to provide CSE. This means that, in practice, not all schools implement CSE equally and comprehensively. In addition, more can be done to promote sexuality education out of school, especially in areas and groups that are harder to reach.


Research from Rutgers and Soa Aids Nederland in 2017 has shown that young people in the Netherlands rate their CSE lessons on average with a 5.8 out of 10. Young people want to be taught about the positive side of love, desires and boundaries, relationships, and sexuality. Not just about the body, reproduction, pregnancies and STIs, which is still the main focus of many sexuality lessons at school. These findings resonate a lot with my personal experience with CSE in the Netherlands. Even though it has been a while since I had CSE classes in school (2013) and much has changed since then – such as the inclusion of the complete image and the function of the clitoris in (most) biology books – I would love to see another push towards more pleasure-based and inclusive CSE!


A significant challenge that we are facing in the Netherlands, is increasing backlash from both right-wing politicians and the general public towards the importance of CSE. For example, in 2023, during the week of ‘Lentekriebels' - an annual project week to promote CSE in schools - social media was awash with mis- and disinformation stating that young children would learn about blowjobs and anal sex at school, and parents were advised to keep their children at home. This led to discussions in parliament around the appropriate age, the content, and the responsibility of schools vs parents in delivering CSE.


Regressive voices - which unfortunately include youth too – are not only gaining ground in the Netherlands but are also increasingly persistent across Europe. This growing opposition actively opposes any progress on SRHR, and CSE specifically. The accelerated shift towards the digital world caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has increased the visibility of these radical voices and caused a spike in the spread of mis- and disinformation about CSE online, leading to increased hostility, violence and hate speech, both in the online and offline world.


Can you share insights into how European countries are collaborating to promote gender equality, eliminate harmful practices, and ensure access to modern contraception and safe abortion services, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable youth populations?


To be honest, this is not my main area of expertise, but I recently learned that gender equality is one of the core values of the EU. To support its efforts towards a gender-equal world, the EU has launched several strategies and action plans, such as the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025 and the Gender Action Plan III. Ending gender-based violence and promoting SRHR are key objectives of these commitments. The EU has also developed an EU Youth Strategy and Youth Action Plan, in which it commits to promoting universal access to youth-friendly SRHR, with quality and affordable services and information, including comprehensive sexuality education, HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment, focusing on adolescent girls, marginalised and LGBTIQ young people. Apart from these policy frameworks, the EU also has dedicated funding to initiatives that address gender equality, and collaborates with member states and CSOs at multilateral fora - such as the UN - to accelerate progress towards gender equality and SRHR, particularly for marginalized groups and young people.


Youth engagement and participation are critical for the success of the ICPD30 agenda. How are European governments, NGOs (your organization) involving young people in decision-making processes related to SRHR and related policies, and what initiatives are in place to ensure youth voices are heard and acted upon?


CHOICE as a youth-led organisation advocates with young people for their sexual and reproductive health and rights and for meaningful participation in the decisions made about their lives. We aim to create safe and inclusive spaces by and for young people to engage in activism and advocacy on Meaningful and Inclusive Youth Participation (MIYP), SRHR and bodily autonomy, at an international level, for example by lobbying at the UN in New York and Geneva. Some of the ways in which we do this are:


- we create youth-friendly and practical resources that provide young people with information on how to engage with different UN processes related to SRHR, such as these resources on the Commission on Population and Development, and the Human Rights Council.


- We offer technical support to young advocates in our programs to prepare for and participate in international advocacy spaces.


- We create (online) learning spaces for young people, with and without advocacy experience, in which they can learn and mobilize together before and during international advocacy processes.


CHOICE and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs also work together to amplify young people's voice in international policy making around SRHR and gender equality. Together, they set up the role of the Youth Ambassador Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender Equality and Bodily Autonomy (YASRHR) in 2014. The Youth Ambassador SRHR serves as an important link between young people and policy makers with the aim of better aligning the work of the Ministry with the realities of young people in the Netherlands and abroad. Through the work of the Youth Ambassador SRHR, young people have an official voice in the development of Dutch and international policy on sexual and reproductive health and rights, freedom of choice and gender equality in general, and for young people in particular.


Some other European governments, such as Denmark, and the EU itself, also have a youth delegate programme promoting young people's meaningful participation in international advocacy processes related to SRHR. Another structure that the Netherlands government has in place to involve young people in decision-making processes is the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). The YAC collaborates with and advises the ministry on different themes, including SRHR. A similar structure to this exists on the EU level, and is called the EU Youth Sounding Board.


Looking ahead, what strategies are being developed at the European level to measure progress towards ICPD30 commitments, and how can youth activists like us contribute to holding governments and institutions accountable for their SRHR obligations, particularly in terms of reducing maternal mortality and ending gender-based violence?


I'm very proud to refer you to these resources on ICPD that were recently developed by three of our youth advocates. To quote Nicole Leonetti in her youth-friendly guide of engagement for the ICPD (p13), the best way to hold your governments accountable is to “stay informed about government policies that impact your SRHR and the commitments made under the ICPD agenda and at the Nairobi Summit. (...) If your government is not doing enough, (...), you can write letters to your parliamentarians, sign petitions, organize peaceful protests, and spread the word within your networks. Accountability is the key to change!”


Of course you can also hit that share button and utilize social media platforms to launch campaigns that highlight specific ICPD30 commitments and progress. Create shareable content, infographics, and stories that resonate with a youth audience. Or collect data and evidence to follow change, for example by conducting surveys, organizing youth consultations, and engaging with communities to gather firsthand information on maternal health and gender-based violence. You can also engage with any of the upcoming international advocacy processes related to ICPD30, such as the Global Youth Dialogue in Benin, or the Commission on Population and Development in New York, and disseminate the outcomes of these events in a youth-friendly way!