Why do young people need safe spaces?
The word safe is often defined as protected from risk or danger, or not likely to be harmed. However, safety extends beyond protection from physical harm to include psychological and emotional well-being. Safety is an equilibrium which is desired by all but hard to reach by many.
This year world commemorates International Youth Day under the theme “Safe Spaces for Youth.” What then is the significance of safe spaces to young people, especially in the context of their sexual and reproductive health? Young people need to access safe spaces so as to ensure that they express themselves to the fullest and interact with their society without fear of risk, condemnation or humiliation. Another very important fact about safe spaces is that they preserve life by seeking to remove the obstacles that often hinder young people in engaging in healthy practices and behaviors.
Inasmuch as safe spaces are a necessity, many young people do not have access to them. The demarcation between safe spaces and spaces which are unsafe in itself reveals that there are many spaces where risk and endangerment have become normalised. They include cyberspace and even public spaces. In a world where one in three women have experienced gender based violence from a non-partner it is unfortunately not unusual for young women to be harassed in broad daylight in full view of onlookers. Expressing yourself or sharing details about your life on social media poses its own risks as cyber-bullying is not just a relatively new phenomenon but an ever-present reality. Socio-cultural beliefs and practices which have been perfected over many years may again compromise the safety of young people.
Among these are the gender imbalances that justify sexual and gender based violence such as child marriages which are experienced by a significant number of young women in Zimbabwe. Young people also expose themselves to danger as they engage in risky activities such as substance abuse or unprotected sexual intercourse which have a detrimental impact on their sexual and reproductive health and ultimately their lives. The list of dangers seems endless.
However, the exposure to unsafe environments and the practice of unsafe activities by young people does not have to be the norm. The safety of young people should not be taken for granted. Ensuring that safe spaces are created and that young people have access to these safe spaces is extremely important in enabling them to reach their potential. It should be the mandate of not only the young people themselves but of government, civil society, families, schools and other spheres where young people engage their society. The work has already begun with the establishment of youth friendly centers and clinics where young people are able to access sexual and reproductive health information and services without fear of judgement. This work should therefore be continued and also extend to the formulation of more policies which guarantee safety and teaching people from an early age to respect themselves and others. Whatever instills pain and fear should not be tolerated thus safety should also be of utmost importance.