Held Back by Fear: How Stigma and Discrimination Keep Adolescents from Accessing Sexual and Reproductive Health Information and Services

The size of today’s youth population makes cultivating the health and well-being of young people a challenge of unprecedented magnitude and urgency. Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is central to meeting this challenge. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading killer of adolescent girls in developing countries. Moreover, while HIV-related deaths have fallen 35 percent since 2005, deaths among adolescents are on the rise (Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, 2015). To improve health outcomes for adolescents, the global health community must address SRH issues. Yet, adolescents around the world still face barriers to accessing SRH services and information. Restricted access to SRH services and information leaves adolescents at risk for unplanned pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Reducing the barriers faced by adolescents seeking SRH services and information requires taking a fresh look at this issue through a different lens: stigma and discrimination.

Stigma is a complex social process that often leads to social and economic exclusion of individuals and groups. Stigma often targets those who transgress—or who are perceived to transgress—social norms governing appropriate behavior. Stigmatized individuals and groups, in turn, may be subject to discrimination. Together, stigma and discrimination have been recognized as major barriers to accessing HIV prevention, care, and treatment services. Yet, relatively little attention has been given to the effects of stigma and discrimination on adolescents’ access to family planning and other SRH services (Waymoi et al., unpublished).

A 2014 study carried out in Tanzania by the USAID-funded Health Policy Project (HPP) and the National Institutes for Medical Research (NIMRI) in Mwanza, Tanzania sheds light on how stigma and discrimination pose barriers to adolescents’ access to SRH services and information (Waymoi et al., unpublished). Findings from the study, which explored the impact of stigma and discrimination on adolescents’ access to family planning, underscore the need to devote additional attention and resources to stigma and discrimination in adolescent SRH.