By Andrew Mkandawire:
The quest to serve and safeguard the health of young people, on voluntary basis, may seem an impossible task to some but the youth in Lilongwe and Kasungu districts have dedicated themselves to such a cause so that their peers get to access vital information to prevent unwanted pregnancies and venereal infections.
George Matanje, 20, is chairperson for Chamama Health Centre Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS) corner, under Traditional Authority (T/A) Wimbe in Kasungu. He told us that since learning community mobilisation approaches during training in 2019, he has helped over 170 parents to understand the importance of adolescents and youths accessing health information and services, including contraception.
“The youth corner now has 70 members who are fully aware of the dangers of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections,” he added.
In T/A Santhe’s area in the same district, Madalo Banda, 24, uses drama to attract more young people towards accessing information.
Being a living testimony of injectable and implant contraception, she helps in dispelling myths and misconceptions on the same.
“I promote delayed first pregnancy and birth spacing behavioural messages where the former targets youth in primary and secondary schools and the latter those who have given birth for the first time and done with secondary education and/ or are in college. So far, I have referred more than 50 girls to community health workers and hospitals to access short and long term contraception,” Banda, who is chairperson of Bwemba Youth Club, said.
She is equally handy with tips for both parents and the youth.
“Parents and guardians should not pretend that abstinence is a lasting solution to youths in sexual relationships, access to contraception is the only guarantee to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections,” she said.
She also encouraged the youth to focus on education as it helps build a successful future, claiming that nurse big plans once she gets back to Soche Technical College in Blantyre, where she wants to complete her studies in Tailoring and Fashion Designs.
Leaders of Kawata and Chikande youth clubs in T/A Santhe and T/A Nyaza, Noel Sylvester Chatula and Nelson Ngoma respectively, said apart from championing referrals of youth to health workers, sports and reading materials are reinforcing information reach to young people.
“We wish more organisations like Family Planning Association of Malawi (Fpam) could supply us with footballs and netballs, and family planning brochures to reach more youth with sports and information packs,” Chatula said.
The peer mobilisation task is, however, not without challenges.
“Some parents chase youths who opt to access contraceptives at a routine outreach clinic or even at the hospital premises,” Anthony Malata, youth leader from Mitundu in Lilongwe, said.
His sentiments are echoed by Mackison Levenia, Youth Community Based Distribution Agent (YCBDA) who reports to Chiwamba Health Centre, T/A Chimutu in Lilongwe.
“Such parents force other youth to send their friends to collect condoms on their behalf and it’s a bad practice,” he pointed out.
Deputy Family Planning Coordinator for Kasungu District Hospital, Lydia Msowoya, equally condemned the behaviour.
“Youths should not be using friends to collect condoms because they miss out access to counselling and mental health support that comes when issuing SRHR/HIV information and services,” she said.
She called on parents to understand the importance of adolescents and youth sexual and reproductive health.
Another youth leader Ruth Kuyere, 23, shared her experience.
“Previously, most parents would flood my place to accuse me of introducing their children to prostitution. They were getting it wrong because, today, they thank me for protecting their girls and boys from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases which have gone down in Wimbe,” she said.
She observed that some parents still do not understand the concept of YFHS.
“We still have some parents that refuse to release their children fearing they will be introduced to sex. What they do not know is that they cannot tell if their children are already indulged in sex because at Chamama health centre, 13 year olds in middle primary school classes come with unwanted pregnancies,” Kuyere said.
It is clear that at least the youth themselves agree that, moving forward, there is need for more collaboration and discussions with parents and guardians to let their wards attend youth clubs and FYHS corner meetings to access comprehensive contraception information. As the saying goes; it takes a thief to catch a thief.