By Elita Soko:
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in August, members of youth groups from villages under Traditional Authority Kalembo in Balaka District gather in an area just off Ulongwe Trading Centre.
They are taking part in an assessment of the impact that the Her Future Her Choice initiative has had in the area. This is, in particular, with regards to ensuring access to comprehensive, rights-based sexual and reproductive health information and services for adolescent girls and young women.
On this particular day, the more eloquent participants volunteer information on how the project has benefitted them at community, family and even individual levels.
Perhaps the most interesting of the experiences that the young people share is a story by one of the young men, whom we will call Yona.
He tells the grouping about how, with knowledge obtained through the initiative, he influenced his older sister to take charge of her reproductive health.
Yona’s sister had been 30 years old at the time and had been bearing children almost on a yearly basis. The number had just reached six.
“After receiving information from Cavwoc, I went to her to ask why she kept bearing children at that frequency and she eventually told me that her birth control methods kept failing,” he recalls.
Among other things, young people are engaged to understand and transform social norms through awareness. The goal is to increase mobilisation for young women to create demand for comprehensive sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services.
Equipped with all this knowledge, Yona laid down all the possible options that his sister could try to explore instead and how she could access them.
He would later accompany her to a health centre, where she could pick a contraceptive method better suited to her needs.
Yona’s sister has not had another child since.
“She still has six children but, with her preferred choice of contraceptive, she is assured that she will not fall pregnant again and can now focus on developing herself and her family instead,” Yona indicates.
This is an unusual story—as in a traditional setting, one would be hard pressed to find a young person brave enough to confront their elder about their sexual reproductive life—but it bears testimony to how the initiative has changed people’s perceptions.
Normally, most parents, guardians and other community leaders view promotion of access to contraceptive methods for young people as handing them a licence to engage in sexual activities. That, essentially, is what no parent wants to imagine their child doing; more so if they are underage.
But these young people in Balaka say things are changing— that parents are becoming more accepting of the reality that is their children engaging in sexual activities.
The young people observe that unplanned pregnancies and subsequent school dropouts have become significantly fewer in the years that the project has been under implementation in the area, largely due to increased access to contraceptive methods.
Another challenge, however, presents itself where marginalised groups are involved.
Meet Dina Musa, who leads Tigwirizane Disability Youth Club. In 2020, she was trained as a peer educator and, at the time, she had noted that young people with disability are side-lined in the dissemination of information on SRHR.
She thought this left such young people prone to unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Having experienced an unplanned pregnancy herself when she was just 15, she considered how much more difficult it would be for someone with a disability and took it upon herself to assist.
“I observed that people with disability need to have information packaged differently. So, after consultations, we found drama to be one of the better ways of imparting knowledge about SRHR in them,” she explains.
Dinah recalls that it had not been easy to set up at the beginning, as young people with disability were not interested in the group. But with assistance from implementers of the Her Future Her Choice project and organisations like the Malawi Council for the Handicapped, the club is now vibrant.
They key thing is that while sexual activities are not exactly being put to a stop, the young people are protected and, so, is their future.
But for that to happen successfully, there is a need for consistency in the provision of SRHR services that the young people have been conditioned to turn to for their safety.
The Project Officer for FPAM under Her Future Her Choice, Ester Moyo, acknowledges that the project has created increased demand for SRHR services and that supply becomes a challenge at times.
With the project set to phase out next year, the organisations are working on ensuring that trends continue on a positive note and that means working with healthcare officials to enable them to match supply with demand.
“We, as a project, are not providing any commodities to them but there is a plan that we have to train them on supply chain and logistics so that they are able to know their status before they have nothing left,” Moyo says.
In the long run, the project is providing capacity building training for service providers to be friendlier and more gender sensitive towards young people. In addition, they are training district authorities so that they are able to address challenges as they arise.
Her Future Her Choice initiative—being implemented by Oxfam, in partnership with Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (Cavwoc), Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) and Network for Youth Development (NfYD) in Balaka and Lilongwe— has been running since 2019 and Malawi is one of four countries where it is being implemented.
The ultimate outcome of the project, according to implementers, is improved sexual and reproductive health and rights for adolescent girls and young women in countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zambia.
For people like Yona’s sister, this would mean a healthier life and a better chance at socio-economic advancement.