A World Health Assembly Experience: From Youth for Health

Margianta Surahman Juhanda Dinata


We never know what opportunities await us. In 2014, I took part in a Model United Nations, a sort of educational simulation of the workings of the World Health Organization (WHO) in my home country, Indonesia. In 2016, I wrote a thesis on global health, mentioning the World Health Assembly (WHA). Three years later, to my amazement, I was attending the real WHA.

One afternoon, I was on the phone with Plan International UK (PIUK) and they asked me whether I was willing to speak at a side event at WHA. I had to pinch myself to ask whether I had heard them right or not.

Without hesitation I said yes, and I was connected to NCD Child and with other inspiring young leaders who were also working in youth health issues. After a few online meetings, we agreed upon the flow and topics for our side event. I was more than ready.

After almost 20 hours flying, I dropped my baggage in the hotel, and immediately boarded a tram to join the WHO’s Walk the Talk, a walking and running festival in the streets of Geneva, enjoying the vibes of all the health practitioners, academicians, and advocates from all walks of lives going down the streets of Geneva. Still fasting on Ramadan, I walked along with the same spirit and same message: Health for All.

After a morning run, I went with PIUK’s Global Programme Manager for the Young Health Programme (YHP) to the Palais des Nations overlooking Lake Geneva. It was a gamble - we didn't know whether we would get an entry pass but eventually we were lucky enough to get an ECOSOC badge and got inside. The Palais is amazing, it operates as the UN Office in Geneva, and in 2012 alone the Palais hosted over 10,000 intergovernmental meetings. This was no surprise, as Geneva is the headquarters of many international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental.

Enter World Health Assembly

Once inside the Palais, I enrolled myself for a side event on access to medicine that included the Ministers of Health from Indonesia, South Korea, Netherlands, Portugal, Mongolia and others.

At the end of the event, I got to meet Prof. Nila Moeloek, Indonesian Minister of Health and taking a selfie with her I whispered: "Do you remember me, ma'am? I'm Gian from the Youth Movement for FCTC and Lentera Anak Foundation. We've always supported you to fight tobacco and protect youth from it."

After a few more side events, I just couldn’t wait to share what I learned at the forum, and translate them into actions with more people in my country.

Young People Shouldn’t Be “By the Way”

Apart from meeting the Minister of Health of Indonesia, another great highlight was meeting amazing youth advocates from all over world - with IFMSA, IPSF, and Youth Coalition just some of the many organizations committed to ensuring young people are involved meaningfully in planning, supporting, and supervising health policies.

Natasha Wang Mwansa, a youth, women, and health advocate from Zambia summed up what young people want in health:

"We need a youth-responsive and youth-friendly health system. Young people shouldn't be ‘by the way’. We should be involved from the beginning in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Young people should be at the core of every plan."

Mesmerized, I approached Natasha and we exchanged our experiences as youth and health advocates. Hearing that she also struggled for comprehensive sexual education and fighting tobacco in her country, I felt less alone. We are just two of the many young people working hard to do the best they can for the well-being of our people.

No One Size Fits All

WHA has a lot of side events. I enrolled myself on events related to my work as a youth and health advocate. One I attended was the launch of Plan International's global adolescent health report co-hosted by UNICEF, Child Health Initiative, the Independent Accountability Panel and other organizations.

Adolescent health, especially for early adolescents, is a specific topic that needs to be addressed comprehensively. Often families and governments spend more on curative measures for adolescents, when prevention would benefit their health more in the long run.

The issues of adolescent health are different in the Global North and Global South, the 'starting point' of the health systems are also specific to each of them. There is no one size fits all when it comes to development issues, especially in health, but it is clear that families and governments often spend more on curing adolescents, while prevention would benefit their health and their budgets more in the long run.

Challenge of Our Time

I finally did the thing that brought me to Geneva – I spoke at a side-event held by NCD Child, NCD Alliance and supported by the YHP. This celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and my speech emphasised how we can work together  effectively to improve the health and well-being of children and young people. 

Sometimes we can start by changing personal behavior and collective actions, like preventing Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) by addressing its risk factors. Sometimes it involves things beyond our personal behavior, like air pollution that needs a systemic approach to its solution. 

My own focus is on tobacco control and I and my Youth Movement for FCTC work to prevent tobacco use among children and young people along with the Lentera Anak Foundation and recently through the YHP. 

Tobacco itself is a staggering epidemic in Indonesia, both for environmental and children’s health. Three out of five children in Indonesia become passive smokers unable to enjoy smoke-free air and the number of children who become addicted to cigarettes keeps increasing every year, reaching up to 7.8 million children in 2018. No wonder NCDs account for 73% of total deaths in Indonesia.

Greta Thunberg with her climate justice movement has shown what can be achieved — I believe young people themselves have to be actively involved to tackle the challenges of our time and NCDs are a crisis of our generation. 

Sharing My Part

In my part, I shared my experience in working for the YHP. Globally, YHP has been implemented in 25 countries. But what is great about YHP implementation in Indonesia is our real emphasis on the importance of children’s rights and youth participation. My work has also involved collaboration with government to support their child friendly city program, with its targets of child-friendly health services and smoke-free zones. 

My experiences in working for health programs related to youth share some similarities, aside from their focus on tobacco control and NCDs, they are a multi-sectorial partnerships involving a collaborative approach between government and non-state actors such as NGOs, private sector, and youth organizations.

In line with the concept of “no one left behind” from SDGs, I believe as a global community we must advance sustainability—in environment, health, and other aspects of development—by involving every sector in our society, particularly young people. Young people are no longer passive objects of history, but active subjects with our own voices, conscience, and action to make the world a better place.

Young people must be supported and involved meaningfully in planning, supporting, and even supervising health-related works and policies to help tackle NCDs as early as possible. Only by doing so, we can all tackle the challenges of our time.