Adolescent health and well-being are in focus at the International Conference IAAH-2018 in Chisinau
On October 3-5, 2018, Chisinau (Republic of Moldova) hosted a conference dedicated to the safeguarding and strengthening of adolescent health. The key topics of the forum included the ecosystem of health and life skills education, gender equality, the potential of using information technologies to increase young people’s access to health services and educational products about adolescent health, and creating a safe and supportive environment for the young people – both at school and beyond.
The event was organized by the Health for Youth Association, the Neovita National Resource Center, and the International Association for Adolescent Health (IAAH). The UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, a co-organizer and official partner of the event, supported several seminars, panel discussions and plenary sessions. Tigran Yepoyan (UNESCO Regional Advisor, Head of the UNESCO IITE Unit of ICT and Health Education) and Alexandra Ilieva (Programme Specialist) presented the UNESCO experience in developing projects aimed at promoting healthy lifestyle among adolescents and maintaining peaceful and non-violent environment at schools.
There are about 1.2 billion children and adolescents from 10 to 19 years old living in the world today.
According to statistics, every third teenager worldwide is being bullied. In the European region, about 25% of young people by the age of 15 have sexual experience, but more than 30% of them do not use contraception. As a result, they are more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and they account for a greater number of teenage pregnancies and childbirths. In some parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA), the rates of HIV infection as well as relatively low level of awareness about how to prevent the transmission of the virus are of particular concern.
Health and well-being of younger generation is one of the priorities of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the European Strategy on Child and Adolescent Health and the WHO Recommendations for Implementing Global Accelerated Actions for Adolescent Health (AA-HA!). At the IAAH-2018 Conference, the exchange of international experience and analysis of existing achievements took place, but also the youth agenda was re-formulated as targeted and systematic efforts of the countries of the European Region to improve adolescent health, taking into account existing opportunities and international best practices.
Over the three days of the conference, 500 participants from 33 countries attended more than 20 expert discussions with more than 60 speakers.
Why do adolescents have a right to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and life skills education? With what techniques and approaches can parents help their children at the difficult stage of transition from childhood to adulthood? What should be done in the first place to prevent violence, bullying and suicides? Is it fair to characterize the impact of social media on health and educational potential of young people as purely negative?
From system challenges to pressing issues, the conference has become a multidisciplinary platform for discussing topics from the fields of medicine, education, demography, psychology and economics. At the same time, adolescents themselves (volunteers at the centers of youth-friendly medical services) had opportunities to speak at the conference along with the experts. Prior to the conference the young people broke up into groups and conducted independent research in schools of their home cities throughout Moldova to find out what factors prevent their peers from adopting healthy habits and what can be done to influence their attitudes and behaviors. The data they collected through surveys and focus groups supplemented the report of Dr. Galina Leshko, Head of the Neovita Center, on the role of specialized services providing access to quality information and medical advice for adolescents.
However, some speakers drew attention to the fact that in order to achieve a long-term positive effect, the joint efforts of healthcare and education systems are required. According to Professor Didier Jourdan, Head of the UNESCO Department of Global Health and Education, the proper implementation of sexuality education in the broad context of general health and well-being of young people relies on the cooperation between teachers and school health workers. Meanwhile, the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, developed with the support of UNESCO could be very useful for designing such programmes locally. In turn, Dr. Eileen Scott from a WHO collaborating center (United Kingdom) described in more detail the AA-HA! Guidelines, which were created to help countries plan, implement and monitor measures to meet the health needs of adolescents.
UNESCO IITE staff members among the key speakers of the conference
Tigran Yepoyan – one of the leading speakers of the conference, spoke at the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as several plenary and thematic sessions throughout the three days of the forum. One of the conference headline topics was mental health of adolescents. In this regard, the plenary meeting and the symposium “Violence, gender, school and community”, organized by UNESCO IITE, focused on issues related to the prevention of violence in the pre-teen and teenager environment. Physical and psychological violence inside and outside of school affects millions of children and young people around the world, posing a serious threat to their health and well-being and violating their human rights.
Mr. Yepoyan presented to the participants a Global guidance on addressing school-related gender-based violence, developed jointly by UNESCO and UN Women, as well as a number of national guidelines created on its basis in Russia, the Republic of Moldova and Kyrgyzstan with the support of UNESCO. In his speeches, Mr. Yepoyan touched upon the extent of the problem in Europe and Central Asia, the main risk factors and methods of prevention.
“246 million teenagers around the world face bullying at school. Unfortunately, the persecutions can go on forever, if adults do not intervene. However, teachers have many mechanisms in hand to prevent and manage such situations. Of course, the determination and commitment of school staff, including the director, is required. It is equally important that the teachers themselves do not set a basis for bullying. Sometimes school workers do not notice how their behavior creates an environment of isolation around some students. If a teacher is able to communicate with the class, to earn trust and respect of their students and to avoid acting solely upon the principles of hierarchy and subordination, then the students respond in the same way and the team develops a favorable environment,” says Mr. Yepoyan.
Together with experts from Russia, Scotland, the Republic of Moldova and other countries, Mr. Yepoyan discussed how legislative measures at the national level, along with enhancing the competence of teachers and workers in other services and involving local communities, can decrease the level of school violence. Tigran Yepoyan also participated in the seminar “School Health. Current Situation and Development Prospects”, where he summed up the discussion organized by leading experts in this field from Russia and France – Professor Vladislav Kuchma, Director of the Institute of Hygiene and Child and Adolescent Health, and Didier Jourdan, Head of the UNESCO Department of Global Health and Education.
Adolescent health in online space – a controversial issue on the agenda of the IAAH-2018
Alexandra Ilieva spoke about the importance of competent use of social media by adolescents, their parents and professionals working with and for young people. Ms. Ilieva shared UNESCO IITE’s experience at two events – the seminar “Family environment as a factor of teenagers’ health and well-being” and the symposium “Social media: positive environment or a trap?” Despite the ubiquity of new technologies, suggestions to control and even limit adolescents in their use of the Internet and social media has many supporters. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers often express concern that fraud, harassment and age-inappropriate content in the virtual space may harm children and adolescents.
“In cyberspace there are really enough threats, which cannot be ignored – for example, we are all concerned about cyberbullying. Nevertheless, it is impossible to disregard the huge number of opportunities that the Internet and social media give us all. It is time to admit that control and prohibitions are not the answer. To solve the problem, it is important both to raise the level of our media literacy in order to understand the realities of today’s youth life and to develop in children the skills for using Internet safely: to explain what privacy settings are, how to complain about insults, spam, how to communicate with strangers on the Web and so on.”
Alexandra Ilieva also drew attention to the fact that the Internet and social media carry an inexhaustible educational potential. Through YouTube, thematic communities and websites, special projects in media publications the possibilities for effective communication with the younger generation on important topics have expanded – for teenagers it is much more preferable to learn about the healthy lifestyle from a favorite blogger or in a collection of useful tips from a popular Instagram account. Therefore, it makes sense for professionals working with young people to develop media projects for adolescents (especially about adolescent health), taking into account their preferences and learning mechanisms.
UNESCO IITE has for several years supported the creation and promotion of online resources for adolescents in EECA countries. Sites and communities: teenslive.info, teens.kg and teenslive.am about reproductive health, HIV prevention and life skills speak to teenagers in a language they understand, while preserving the scientific accuracy and correctness of presentation, taking into account age and cultural differences. Another flagship project featured videos about health and relationships, produced together with Nowchpok – a popular youth YouTube-channel. In less than a year, these seven videos were watched more than 9.5 million times. The newest video about the effect of viruses on human body was prepared in the run up to the World AIDS Day 2018.
All conference materials are available on its official website.