“Youth—My Past and Their Future” is a revealing series of interviews with luminaries in the field of adolescent sexual and reproductive health. The series will provide a candid glimpse into the adolescence of our interviewees and focus on their current work with this population. We will be posting these interviews over the next few weeks on Half the World. This week’s installment is an interview with Ward Cates Jr., MD, MPH, president of research at FHI 360.
Willard (Ward) Cates, Jr., MD, MPH, is president of research at FHI 360, one of the nonprofit organizations in international public health and development, with field activities in more than 50 countries. He has worked to improve youth sexual and reproductive health throughout his nearly four-decade career.
WC: Well I’ve never stopped being a teenager…so just like I am now. My priorities then were girls, sports, and grades – and in what order depended on the time of day. Now they’re family, sports and work…ditto.
IYWG: What were you told about sex when you were a young person? Who gave you this information? What else do you wish you had been told?
WC: The first time I heard about sex was when someone told me that my father put his thing in my mother to create me. I think I was about 7. I didn’t believe them, so I asked my mother. She gave me a book that she had ready for the occasion. My father came by that night and uncomfortably asked if I had any questions; when I said I didn’t, he was relieved. But I keep reading voraciously (for a teen!) and became the age appropriate sex education source for my social network.
IYWG: We have a few questions for you about the state of the world’s youth today. First, what is the biggest issue currently faced by youth?
WC: Establishing their self-esteem and developing a sense of security in a rapidly changing, increasingly transparent world.
IYWG: What is the most important thing that could be done to improve the health and well-being of today’s youth?
WC: Providing a supportive environment in which youth feel they can control their own destiny. It’s important to avoid a sense of fatalism where they feel that their future is in the hands of others – from criminal forces to supernatural beings. Hopefully we can empower youth to feel that they can control where they will end up in life. This sense of control is a necessary foundation for all of us, not only youth, to move forward and be accountable for our actions.
IYWG: Finally, please share a little about your work with youth. Why is the health and well-being of young people especially important to you?
WC: Because youth are the future. Each generation builds upon itself, and today’s youth are tomorrow’s adults. We (the slightly older than teenage generation) need to understand and value that our future is in their hands.
IYWG: What is one thing about youth that you wish you better understood?
WC: How to better manage their normal impulses so that youth can make better decisions for their future.
IYWG: How will the growing interest in treatment as prevention impact youth sexual and reproductive health?
WC: Treatment as prevention affects all ages. It’s as important for youth as it is for older persons to be aware of their HIV status. If infected, they can obtain treatment which will not only improve their personal HIV prognosis but will also reduce their capacity to transmit the virus to others.