Anna Halpine: ‘Sex education, marriage and family are the key issues for Croatian youth’
An Interview for a Croatian newspaper ‘Glas Koncila’ (eng. Voice of the Council)
World Youth Alliance came into existence in 1999 at United Nations as a reaction of conscience by several young people from New York, lead by the founder Anna Halpine. Taking part in the Conference on Population and Development, 32 young delegates chosen to represent world youth had demanded right to abortion, reproductive rights for children and deletion of parental rights, whereas basic rights such as access to clean water and food, sanitation and health conditions, education and employment were ignored. Halpine and several other people gathered at the conference wanted prevent such an injustice, so the next morning they returned to the meeting and distributed flyers saying that the latter young people did not represent all the world’s youth. Halpine called for discussion on fundamental human rights and needs of the youth. Numerous delegates were moved by her presentation and decision to found World Youth Alliance, that would be permanently present at UN.
As founder and president of the Alliance from 1999 to 2007 Anna Halpine traveled around the globe, educating, putting young people’s problems into focus and warning whenever human rights were violated. Today, as executive director, she keeps on lobbying for human dignity and promotes ideals she firmly belives in. On her way around the globe, she visited Croatia on 23rd March 2013, in order to officially open Chapters in Zagreb, Osijek and Split that make the first WYA National Committee.
The Mission – defense of human dignity
GK: Why did you decide to open World Youth Alliance Chapters in Croatia, and what advantages WYA brings to Croatian youth?
Halpine: I have come responding to invitation by young people from Croatia and it is my great honor to be here. As we were sightseeing Zagreb, during an organized visit to Zagreb Chatedral, a famous statement by cardinal Stepinac, which he made while the “show trial”, was mentioned: “My conscience is clear!” That statement did move me as the communists’ conscience was not clear, just as the conscience of many other people. Cardinal Stepinac showed to the Croats, how powerful a clear conscience might be. Accordingly, World Youth Alliance Croatia, just as Solidarity movement in Poland, emerged as a reaction of conscience. On occasion of opening the WYA chapters in Croatia we are celebrating a reaction of conscience that appeared in these young people who strive to work for a change. It has been a while since we have been wanting to found a National Committee. This is a new step for our Alliance, and I am glad that it came into existence just in Croatia. Croatian youth is thrilled by WYA and they are ready to work in their own country to reach the goals which are proper for Croatian circumstances, and we are ready to help them. We offer a lot of expertise and support, so that they can understand better the link between politics and public debates in their country and those which are taking place on the international level, in Brussels and New York at UN. We want to train young people in Croatia for a better understanding of discussions that are held there and enable them to argue for their convictions. WYA is offering them a partnership – an exchange of ideas, devotion to the same goals and common work to reach them. As regards cooperation with Croatian team, our first task is to see which are the Croatians’ needs, and then explore problems together and offer a professional help through training programmes, in order to make them as efficient as possible on the local and national level.
GK: What areas will be put into focus by the Croatian team and which are the main goals of WYA Croatia?
Halpine: World Youth Alliance’s mission is very broad: to defend human dignity. In our work we always start from human person. Cooperation with young people in their national context is very important as they must decide which issues are the most problematic in their country. We will pay attention to fields which Croatian team considers the most threatening for dignity of the person. Some of these fields are sexuality and sex education. Small countries are often threatened when defending their rights.
GK: You have been fighting numerous battles for human rights all around the world, mostly through legislation and training the youth. You have won many of them, however, some you have lost. Which battles were the gravest?
Halpine: This is correct. Three years ago, we participated in the debate on Kenyan constitution which was of crucial importance for their people. American government influenced the constitution through lobbying and financial support, in order to change traditional values of Kenyan people. We were fighting, warning that there had been unjust operations done, but unfortunately we could not prevent them. From 2007 to 2008 we fought against Reproductive Health Bill that was about to be enacted in the Phillipines. The bill was disastrous for it sought to change almost all the former laws. Among other measures, it included population control according to which every family was supposed to have no more than two children. That bill, proposed to the Senate by Hillary Clinton, was so radical that discussion on it was not allowed even in the USA. Clinton, as the state secretary and representative of the powerful United States, visited the Phillipines three times in order to negotiate with president Benigno Aquino III, and to publicly promote enactment of the bill. In the same time, American embassy provided financial means for those members of the Congress who agreed to support the law. In the middle of 2011 American president Obama gave a financial support of almost billion dollars to the Philliphinian president Aquino, which in the Philipinian media was perceived as a quarantee that enactment of that law will be priority to Aquino. Eventually, reproductive health bill was enacted on 21 of December 2012. As you can see, we did lose some of the battles, but it means that the next time we would need to be better prepared and smarter. Small countries are not powerful enough to defend their rights, and we are here to try to protect them from harmful policies that are being imposed on them from more powerful countries. In Kenya, Rwanda and in the Philippines the same harmful policy was introduced in sequence – by enacting abortion, birth control and sex education laws. It has been slowly coming to Croatia and we will do our best to prevent such scenario reappear in your country. At that time we did not have an alternative sex education program, and today we do have one. From 2007 on, we have been working on an experimental program for women’s health and sex education which has now being introduced into Carribean schools. Within last year, we have a tested this model, and now we will be able to offer it for Croatia. Nowadays World Youth Alliance has been developing a program for children and youth from kindergarden to secondary school age, which fosters discussion of dignity of the person in the school environment and refers to sex education. We have various useful informations in that field that we can share with you and work on their adaptation to the conditions in Croatia and local procedures of introducing matters in schools. Likewise, we have greatly dissussed issues of marriage and family which are critical in Croatia. We must work together on these issues and find the best examples and solutions, in order to make progress and support the youth.
GK: Recently in the Croatian public debate, there has been a conflict between Catholic parents and Croatian government regarding the introduction of health education into primary and secondary schools, named “sex/gender equality and responsible sexual behaviour”, which promotes values contrary to students’ Christian worldview. The government refused any kind of dialogue. What do you think about it?
Halpine: My Croatian team introduced the health education problem to me and asked for my advice and help regarding the issue. It is highly important to note that according to the international law a state is not obliged to introduce sex education, which means that the whole nation must get involved in a public debate, and in taking such decisions voice must be given to the people. It seems to me that this was not respected in the Croatian debate, since many families and individuals expressed their preferences for a different approach to sex education, and the state decided to ignore them. I think that everyone and every institution has a right and duty to get involved in these issues of civil society which affect uinderstanding of the human person. It is always important to keep one’s own principles in mind and question the exact vision of person that is being promoted – one needs to check if it is in accordance with his/her convictions and ideals.
Young people are the key factor in entrepreneurship and innovations
GK: In Croatia unemployment has been a great problem, especially for young people that after graduation from the university cannot find a job and a purpose in life. What would you suggest them?
Halpine: Unemployment is a huge problem that is increasing throughout the world. Young people invest much in their skills and talents, and afterwards it seems that nothing is left for them. WYA cannot offer a global solution to that problem, but in our work we urge development of human potential and we insist that civil society and governments to recognize the value of the youth and work to solve that problem. This is one of the fields where WYA’ s cooperation with National Committees, like this one in Croatia, is necessary as every country must find its own solution to the problem. We can warn and educate on that, so that countries that invest in their youth and recognize their value eventually flourish. Many economic data indicate that young people are the key factor in entrepreneurship and innovations. It is in fact them who are, beceuse of their youthful and flexible mind, ready to take risks which bring forth fascinating enhancements in science, technologies and development of new businesses. We must find creative solutions together, so that we can give young people an opportunity to work. This is our task: stress that human person is always a treasure and a creative driver of society. We must always have in mind the importance of every person and create societies which would put the individual in center. We must build societies which will recognize young people’s talents and give them chance to involve actively in society. This is actually what we will work on with teams in their national frameworks, in order to see what solutions and programs are to be considered.
Young people in the West losing the meaning of life
GK: What are, in your opinion, the greatest problems that young people encounter today? Are these fundamental needs such as clean water and food or problems of a different kind?
Halpine: Young people are nowadays facing numerous problems which could be classified in two groups. In developing countries young people haven’t got satisfied their basic needs such as proper nutrition, clean water or accommodation. They often face regimes which embrace violation of human rights, they struggle with poverty and lack of education. They are burdened with other problems as well, such as corruption in society and inadequate social infrastructure which brings grave material shortages of goods forth. However, this situation can be encouraging in a way. They know: if they get education and develop their skills, their country will need them. Given that they are the key factor in creating a better state, they feel solidarity and appeal to realize, by common endeavours, the appointed tasks. In the West, in the developed world, we see something completely different. Young people have access to education, but it seems that nobody needs them nor wants them. They are constantly being told that they are replacable and that hundrerds of other people can do their job equally or better than them. Exactly because of that, the problem of lost meaning and purpose of their life is increasingly present. They ask themselves, what is it that they can give to society and to the world. Such questions provoke deeper human understandings, such as what is the meaning of my life and to whom and what I can commit it. WYA upholds such discussions with young people all around the world. We enable them to recognize that every human life has a meaning, no matter what its circumstances are like, and that the world needs every one of them. Problems such as unemployment, increasing dissatisfaction and exclusion from social life are just a reflection of the question – to what one should commit his/ her life. If we try to answer that question, we can better understand that meaning of our life exists, and that we are meant to do a certain work purposefully. Despite all the obstacles, this fact should be always kept in mind so that we can fulfill our mission. We must encourage and help each other to make progress. WYA can nurture such activity here, in Croatia. We cannot offer jobs to our members, but we can provide a space where young people will have opportunity to talk about dignity and meaning of their life and find ways of group action through volunteering, so that they would contribute to creating a culture and society that they would like to see in Croatia. This action is indeed necessary to launch long-term changes in society.
For the Croats it is important to realize what gift they have at disposal
GK: You often stay in Brussels. You used to work as an assistant in European Parliament for a period, and your organization operates at European Union level. Croatia will soon become a full member of the EU. Which advantages and disadvantages may be expected from that membership?
Halpine: One of the most exciting things which are happening as a result of the EU anlargement is the inclusion of new, smaller countries. Countries like Croatia, which have had a grave history and experienced communism, distruction of war and economic crisis, and are very well acquainted with people’s reality and connection between a certain idea and its realization in society. It is this knowledge that matters. We have seen excellent governance in many new members of the EU, that work to improve law, policies and decisions which would bring more freedom throughout European Union. If Croatia follows such a way, it will be excellent for both, the country itselt and the EU. However, if it only follows instructions from larger and more powerful countries, such conduct will bring no benefit neither to Croatia nor to the EU. It is important for the Croats to realize what gift they have at disposal and to keep their present experiences, national identity and culture; only theb, they will enrich the EU. However, if new member states permit European ideology to “swallow” them, the whole EU project will diminish and become even dangerous for those countries.
The Church promotes universal values
GK: Although your organization is not Catholic, it has a large number of Catholic members and you are Catholic as well. What are the relations between World Youth Alliance and the Holy See, and what do you expect from new pope Francis?
Halpine: Our membership is global and very diverse. Many of our members are believers, but not all. Their affiliation to a religion depends on where in the world they live. In Europe, North America and Latin America our members are Christians and mostly Catholics, in the Middle East most of our members are Moslem, whereas in Asia our membership is even more various. In Thailand and Thaivan most of our members are Buddhist. Such diversity is very important to us. We perceive WYA as alliance of different young people which fight together for dignity of human person. If such human values and ideals are really universal, youth of all religions ought to understand them, just as those who are not believers. The Catholic Church on the global level has taken leadership in promoting many universal ideas, such as protection of human life, family and freedom of belief. The Church has primarily stood for that values which are fundamental to understanding the human person. We share the same goal with the Catholic Church regarding these fields, and, I believe, the Church does not stand for these position only for theological reasons. The Chuch stresses that very clearly by saying that those fundamental truths on the nature of human person and family result from common sense and human experience. It is important to note that here we do not need to rely exclusively on Gospel, but it suffices for us to know from personal experience, philosophical works, science and many studies what real nature of man is like. In WYA we have a very close cooperation with the Holy See, especially at the EU and UN where such negotiations are being undertaken. On everyday basis we work together, consult with the Holy See and exchange ideas. Although we are not a Catholic organization, in these fields we cooperate for we have a common goal, and that is defending the dignity of every person. We expect pope Francis to stay devoted to all the essential values that his predecessors have advocated for. We have no reason to believe that there would be any radical changes in these terms because they are fundamental truths which derive from common sense, and the Church has always upheld them. I had a great honour to meet pope John Paul II and introduce my work to him, as well as to pope Benedict XVI while he was still cardinal Ratzinger. We cooperated closely with both of them and we firmly believe that our cooperation with pope Francis will continue.
GK: You are Chatolic and you got a master degree in philosophy and religious sciences. What is the meaning of faith in your life?
Halpine: In World Youth Alliance we are seeking to understand what dignity of person means and what this tells us about ourselves. We have recognized that human nature includes pursuit for the transcendent. Although our starting point is a philosophical understanding of human person, we are aware that at a certain point it turns into a theological understanding which I personally find in the Catholic Church. As to a Chatolic, it has been a great gift to live and be formed during last two pontificates which put so much energy into understanding the idea of who we are, from both philosophical and theological perspective. For me, it has played a significant role in understanding the work I have been doing, its importance and consequences of ideas that we chose as individuals and as society. Participation in life of the Church on daily basis means to me as much as to other Catholics. It is a source and a place where I encounter the Lord and strive to understand my mission and live it every day. The Church is also a place where I can testify and learn from the two exceptional popes whom the world keeps in mind, not only for their holiness but also for their deep thinking on human person. This gave me an additional stenght to commit to my work and realize the key importance of debates that we participate in through WYA. My faith enables me to comprehend the idea of human dignity on a deeper level.