By Josephine Chinele:
On a sunny but windy Friday afternoon, youth leaders from 15 youth clubs gathered at Nanjiri Primary School located in Traditional Authority Machinjiri in Blantyre rural.
This was the first meeting in three months after outreach gatherings were suspended following former president Peter Mutharika’s declaration of a national disaster in March before Malawi recorded any coronavirus case.
In the same order, there was a directive to have all schools closed from March 23, 2020 and that all other public gatherings such as religious meetings should be restricted to 100 people or less. The country’s first three cases were later registered on April 2, 2020.
As the 16 youth club leaders gathered at Nanjiri School, other youths in Dedza had similar meetings. They were all eager to meet Pakachere Institute for Health and Development Communication (IHDC) staff, health workers and the District Youth Officer considering a new wave of challenges burdening them following school closures.
“We now have unique problems. Girls have gone into early marriages in order to alleviate their families’ poverty. The boys are mainly into alcohol and substance abuse,” says Chairperson of Machinjiri Chilaweni Youth network, Patson Symon.
In his capacity as a trained youth leader, he has referred 13 cases of gonorrhea contracted during this time to the nearest health facility.
“This is a sign that youths are having unprotected sex. They came seeking counselling and support that’s when I advised them to seek medical help,” he adds.
The Nanjiri youth meeting is one of the eight gatherings held in Blantyre and Dedza aimed at training and mentoring youth leaders on how they can ensure that young people are accessing Sexual Reproductive Health and HIV prevention services during the Covid-19 pandemic and movement restrictions.
The other objective for these meetings was to equip youth leaders with knowledge and skills on Covid-19 causes, transmission and prevention.
During all the eight youth leaders’ orientation meetings on Covid-19 in Blantyre and Dedza, the youths indicated that they still lack basic reproductive health commodities such as contraceptives, condoms, STI treatment and HIV testing.
The suspension of outreach meetings has just worsened their situation as there has been no usual encouragement from peers on SRH issues, to the extent that other youths have had the impression that health facilities are closed for services too. This has in a way perpetuated unprotected sex incidences among the youths.
Between March and June this year, Symon reveals, 26 early marriages were recorded within his catchment area. About 20 early marriages were abolished in collaboration with Community- Based Organisations, traditional leaders and other non-governmental organisations. Six were not immediately separated because the girls in the marriages are already pregnant.
“A lot of girls from my area are into casual relationships with ‘sugar daddies’ in exchange for money. In the process, they are getting infected with STIs and becoming pregnant. The idle boys are into alcohol and substance abuse and in the process also risking their lives as they are engaging in unprotected sex,” says T/A Makata Youth Network chairperson, Esther Mambo.
The advent of Covid-19 has also put lives of youths, especially those in rural areas, at a higher risk of acquiring the novel virus. To many, this is a disease that was initially widely thought to be of urban dwellers and not for those living in rural areas.
“We are learning now that anyone can contract the disease. We thought it is for the elderly or urban dwellers or rich people. Learning about our high risk is even scarier. We have inadequate knowledge and we are too poor to afford preventive equipment at individual and household level,” says Chairperson of Tiyanjane Youth Club (Soche Ward), Blessings Matchola.
To Blessings and the other youths of Blantyre and Dedza, the orientation meetings on Covid-19 are timely as they have been an eye opener.
All the youths indicated that they would want to have washable masks which they may be using at social gatherings such as churches, small village development meetings and at other public places like markets.
Youth Friendly Coordinator for Blantyre Rural, Lydia Mpalira, confirms an increase in STI and pregnancy cases.
“We usually had a weekly designated day to interact with the youths on Sexual Reproductive Health issues. Since they were suspended, most of them have the impression that the facilities are closed,” Mpalira said.
District Youth Officer for Blantyre, Getrude Franscisco, says between March and June, pregnancies have been reported from several schools within her duty station perimeter.
“I have also received reports on STIs and unruly behavior among the youths. The youths are at a higher risk of Covid-19 as well hence our collaboration with Pakachere to reach out to them,” she says.
Even though older people seem more likely to die from Covid-19— but recent United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) findings indicate that they are not necessarily more likely to get infected.
The CDC’s most recent data, published on June 19, shows that nearly 70 percent of people in the US who tested positive as of May 30, were younger than 60. Most young people living with the novel virus have been revealed due to an increase in the number of them getting tested. But young people’s adventurous behavior may also in a way expose them to contracting the virus.
The Malawian youths have multiple sharp sword edges to deal with in the scenario of STIs, teen pregnancies, HIV and Covid-19.
MDHS (2015-16) indicates that 19 percent of women aged 25-49 have first sex before age 15, and 64 percent before age 18. By age 20, 85 percent of women have had sexual intercourse.
Between 2000 and 2015-16, (says the MDHS), the median age at first sexual intercourse has not changed among women aged 25-49 (16.8 years in 2000 and in 2015-16). This is an indication that youths are a highly vulnerable population.
Pakachere IHDC with funding from Champions of Global Reproductive Rights (PAI) under the Reproductive Health Advocacy Partnership (RHAP) aimed at supporting youth access reproductive health services reached out to the youths of Blantyre and Dedza with Covid-19 prevention measures.
“The youth are facing twin devils of Covid-19 and unplanned pregnancy, we need to act now and act with urgency. Otherwise time will not be kind on them and the country may slide backwards on the gains made in the area of sexual reproductive health and rights,” observed Jonathan Mbuna, Pakachere IHDC Advocacy and Training Manager.
Currently Malawi has recorded a total of 1818 Covid-19 cases and 19 deaths. According to a recent update statement from Ministry of Health, local transmission of the novel virus is on the increase.
“You are encouraged to always put on a mask whenever you are going into crowded places,” reads a statement released on June 30, 2020.
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