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Sessions changing girls’ lives

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MWATIBU – We are making progress

By Yamikani Sabola:

Martha was only 16 when she had her first sexual encounter.

As fate would have it, that single episode of sex flung her on a path to motherhood.

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She got pregnant and, nine months down the line, gave birth to a baby girl.

Martha says, with regret, that she would not have been a teen mother had it not been for her peers, who used to feed her with incorrect information about sex and reproduction.

She says the peers used to emphasise that sexual intercourse was a requirement for girls at adolescent phase of development.

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They would tell her how a girl at that stage needed a particular “vitamin” that is only acquired from males through sex.

“My friends used to tell me that I would not develop into a fully-fledged fertile woman if I skipped sex at puberty,” she says.

Ignorant as she was on issues of sexuality, she took her friends seriously.

She feared she would grow into an infertile woman; when a random boy made sexual advances on her, she easily bulged and got the pregnancy that forced her out of school.

“I got pregnant for a boy who denied responsibility. My parents advised me to let go as I was still young and had a chance of returning to school after delivery,” she says.

In 2020, when her baby was 18 months old, Martha thought of returning to school to rekindle her dream of becoming a nurse.

She enrolled back at Mchedwa Primary School in Traditional Authority (T/A) Malili in Lilongwe.

Martha told herself to be careful this time to avoid carrying another unwanted pregnancy.

She joined Her Future Her Choice club, which provides a platform to meet and discuss sexual and reproductive health (SRH) issues.

A health expert from Likuni Mission Hospital also periodically pays the club a visit to provide SRH education and services including contraceptives.

The club was formed under the Her Future Her Choice (HFHC) Project jointly implemented by Network for Youth Development (NfYD) and Family Planning Association of Malawi (Fpam) with funding from Global Affairs Canada through Oxfam.

One of the project’s main objectives is to improve youths’ access to SRH information and services to reduce cases of teenage pregnancy and early marriages that force girls out of school.

UNFPA notes that teenage pregnancies and early marriages are some of the factors contributing to high school dropout rates among girls in Malawi

In a report titled ‘Mother Groups – Underutilised Resource in Girls’ Education in Malawi’, the UN agency says 58 percent of girls drop out of school and out of the lot that remains in school, 18 percent fall pregnant while eight percent get married, leaving only 25 percent completing primary school education.

Martha says the HFHC club has helped enlighten her on issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights such that she cannot easily fall into the trap of teenage pregnancy again.

Youth health services provider at Likuni Mission Hospital, Chilewani Masabuka, indicates that demand for SRH services is increasing among the youth in the area, saying about 150 of them come seeking the services at the facility every month, up from 30.

He says sensitisation campaigns are helping dispel societal perceptions that SRH services are inappropriate for the youth.

Masambuka says barring youths from accessing SRH information and services is naïve as some of them are engaging in unprotected sex due to ignorance.

A demographic and health survey (DHS), which National Statistical Office conducted in 2015-2016, found that some boys and girls debut in sex at very tender ages.

The survey found that 19 percent of women aged 25 to 49 had their first sex encounters before age 15, and 64 percent before age 18.

Further, the survey revealed that 11 percent of men aged 25 to 49 had first sex before age 15 and 42 percent had it before turning 18.

The DHS survey also established that poor or low access to contraceptives is contributing to about 106,000 teenage pregnancies annually.

Masambuka observes that girls and boys are curious to try out things when they reach adolescent stage; as such, they end up pregnant or getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

“It is important that youths are given access to sexual and reproductive health services and information so that they should be able to make informed choices to avoid not only early pregnancies but also STIs,” Masambuka says.

Matron for HFHC club at Chiwenga Primary School in Lilongwe, Caroline Phiri, says the club, constituting girls only, meets on Tuesdays and Fridays every week.

Phiri says apart from offering them SRH education, club members are also encouraged to report, in confidence, any cases of sexual abuse they experience whether at school or in their homes.

Project Officer for NfYD, Sekanawo Mwatibu, says HFHC is a multinational project covering four countries in Africa including Malawi, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Zambia.

In Malawi, the project is being implemented in T/As Malili and Chimutu in Lilongwe and T/As Amidu and Kalambo in Balaka District targeting 4,000 adolescent girls and young women aged between 10 and 24 years.

Mwatibu says the project focuses on comprehensive sexuality education to ensure that adolescent girls and young women have greater awareness of their SRH rights, and ability to claim those rights and services.

She says, in Malawi, it is hard to talk about issues to do with sexuality, more especially with the youth, because it is considered as taboo.

Mwatibu observes that youths end up making wrong decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health due to lack of information.

“We are making progress in safeguarding sexual reproductive and health rights among the youth, especially girls and young women, to ensure that they are able to make informed decisions,” she said.

The HFHC project rolled out in 2019 and is expected to wind up in 2023. —Mana

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