When his mother lost the battle to Ovarian Cancer in 2016, Kobe Juwan Smith’s life completely changed.
He had witnessed firsthand how the lack of quality resources, services and health information shortened the life span of his matriarch. It weighed heavily on his mind how many families suffered the same gut-wrenching heartbreak of losing the ones they love and how many more would share the same unfortunate fate.
Kobe Juwan Smith knew then and there that more had to be done for women locally.
Using his pain to fuel his advocacy journey, he set off on his trailblazing path to be the change he wanted to see in the world. “Part of my advocacy work is to ensure that women and girls have consistent access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health information and services — the kind my mother was not fortunate to have.” Smith explained in an in an interview with Nightly News.
Since then, Smith has devoted much of his time, youth, resources and energy to the family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SHRH) field.
Now in 2022, the 24-year-old, who hails from Charlotte Street, Georgetown, will soon be headed to Thailand after he was awarded the ICFP 2022 Youth Trailblazer Award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health. The award recognizes his work in this field in Guyana for close to a decade.
“I want to use the platform at the 2022 ICFP in Thailand to talk about how more men and boys could participate in family planning and the movement to reduce unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, which all contribute to negative health outcomes for vulnerable communities. For me, it’s about letting men and boys know that they too can benefit from good family planning practices. Family planning is not just a women’s issue, although some people might think so. We have a long way to go before men and women feel comfortable about whether they want to have children, the number of children they would like the have, and the spacing between their births — in addition to a healthcare system that gives them quality health information and services to make those decisions.”
He further explained that “Growing up, we were told that there are certain expectations for men and women. Like, some men are just allowed to be aggressive and emotionally unavailable. Some men are not taught to be caring and responsible and respectful — particularly to women and girls. I feel this is what has led to this terrible culture of violence against women which is really a pandemic. I never thought I would be working on the frontlines, supporting the health, rights, and well-being of women and other vulnerable groups. But this is very personal to me. I have seen first-hand what happens when women are unable to afford and access quality health services. I have seen what happens when people are not allowed to control their bodies and their rights. It’s really a matter of life and death.”
Formerly known as the Youth Travel Award, the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) Youth Trailblazer Award aims to amplify and highlight the voices of young leaders in the family planning and SRHR field through active planning and participation. Youth selected for the 2022 ICFP Youth Trailblazer Award will play an essential role in providing a youth perspective, voice, and experience to the conference. Young leaders who are awarded the 2022 ICFP Youth Trailblazer Award will be fully funded to attend the ICFP and the Youth Preconference in Pattaya City, Thailand 12-17 November 2022, including registration, travel, and accommodation costs.
Awardees will also be integrated into the planning of the ICFP, including integral participation on the ICFP subcommittee(s) of their choice, engagement as speakers and/or moderators at sessions during the Youth Preconference and ICFP, and other conference engagement opportunities that will magnify the voices, perspective, and experiences of youth in the family planning and reproductive health community.
More than 300 youth worldwide applied for the honour, however only 50 trailblazers from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America were selected. Smith is among that exceptional few. “It is an incredible opportunity for me to highlight the gains we have made in our country in the realm of family planning. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some setbacks in service delivery, more women and youth are able to access life-saving health services, including contraceptives like pills, implants, intrauterine devices, and condoms – to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Access to family planning is also a key factor to gender equality and women’s empowerment and the reduction of poverty in Guyana.”
His award comes on the heels of more than a decade of advocacy and family planning work locally. At only 24, Smith has volunteered and served in multiple capacities in multiple organizations across the globe. Just last year, Smith led a PAHO/WHO-funded COVID-19 project at the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association (GRPA). “I coordinated the delivery of free life-saving sexual and reproductive health services to women, youth, and other vulnerable groups across Guyana, in the time of COVID-19. Through research, health service delivery, and media campaigns, the project sought to assess and respond to the impact of COVID-19 on youth, women, adolescent mothers, persons living with HIV, and LGBTQ+ persons. The project delivered SRH services, including HIV tests, STI screenings, and contraceptives, and care packages.” More than 400 women and youth benefited.
Since 2013, Smith has been organizing community engagement activities, advocacy campaigns and facilitated sessions on Comprehensive Sexuality Education and SRHR, which targeted more than 7,000 young persons.
In 2017, he participated in a Hearing of the 161st Ordinary Period of Sessions at the Organization of American States – Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Washington D.C. where he called for the implementation of the National Policy for the Reintegration of Adolescent Mothers into the Formal School System. That same year, he was awarded the National Youth Award for dedicated volunteer service in providing and promoting health education for adolescents in Guyana. From being a member of the UNFPA Youth Advisory Group and a Women Deliver Young Leader to Commissioner to the IPPF Independent Resource Allocation Commission, it is no doubt that Smith is doing it for the love and not the likes.
Presently, he serves as the President of the GRPA’s Youth Advocacy Movement.
There is no doubt that the award is fitting for Smith, who is a former student of the Central High School and The Bishops’ High School. In 2020, he graduated from the University of Guyana with a Bachelor of Laws degree. He explained that he is on the path of becoming a human rights lawyer, where he plans to work on the “frontlines to defend the rights of vulnerable groups in Guyana who live on the periphery of violence, discrimination, exclusion, and other inequalities.”
At present, Kobe works at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as the Gender-Based Violence Training Consultant, where he co-ordinates and deliver training sessions to Guyana Police Force officers to improve their capacity to respond and investigate cases of gender-based violence. He opined that this has “really been a crisis in Guyana.”
When asked why he continued with his cause, Smith said “I hope to motivate other young men to speak up as co-champions for human rights and justice. There are some people who say there are no place for men and boys in conversations about the health, rights and well-being of women and girls. But who are the ones who get women pregnant — most times in an unplanned way? Who are the main perpetrators of violence? It’s time for men to understand their responsibilities in these issues.”