In Uganda, there is an increasing number of young people who are spending time on social media platforms, which represent powerful channels to reach youth, understand their world, and link them with health information and services. A critical health issue in Uganda remains the high rates of unplanned pregnancies among adolescents, driven in part by a lack of comprehensive sexual health education and socioeconomic barriers to accessing youth-friendly health services. The lack of access to youth-friendly Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and services is one of the greatest challenges for young people in Uganda.

Adolescent sexual and reproductive health needs and barriers are not very different from their parents’ generation when they were young. However, media use and influence places this issue in an entirely new arena increasingly unfamiliar to adults. Barriers to adolescent uptake of modern contraceptives have been well-documented, including adolescents' misconceptions and limited knowledge of methods, community and provider bias against adolescent use of contraceptives, and facilities not meeting the needs of adolescents or being “youth-friendly”. Yet, the digital response designed by adults has fallen back on tried and not-so-true mobile initiatives centered on a Facebook page. Yet when Facebook is being referred to as “Mombook,” we know that we are falling behind in meeting young people where they need us the most.

It is against the above backdrop that Youth Equality Centre (YEC) was created. YEC is a youth-led community enhancement organization dedicated to elevating young people’s voices in governance by extending leadership, SRHR and livelihood strategies to the youth through capacity building, advocacy and community mobilization especially at grassroots levels. With funding from Women Deliver, we created the e-SRHR program to launch online and mobile tools that provide timely and high-quality SRHR information and services that are culturally, socially, and legally appropriate. The program provides personalized interaction with peer radio presenters on YEC Digital Radio who have been trained in online behavior change communication and advocacy. The presenters not only provide accurate information about SRHR, they also make referrals to youth-friendly health services.

The radio station, Equality Radio, is aimed at driving demand within the context of informed choice. The show/station is designed and led by youth, and inspired by human-centered design, including focus groups, interviews with key leaders and policy makers, and interactive workshops in which participants create their own archetypes of youth who spend time online. The radio is also informed by “social listening” software, that allows the programs to understand the way youth talk about modern contraception and SRH.

The YEC Digital Radio platform is so effective at reaching and appealing to youth, that it has been used to serve their needs beyond the realm of SRHR Information and Services, which remains the core focus of the platform. The additional potential of YEC Digital Radio lies in education in other areas. This stems from my dream to improve education outcomes for youth due to the nature of our education system, which does not offer practical skills to students.  Personally, I had to juggle my studies and part-time work as I needed to raise funds for my education. However, technology gave me the convenience to learn through virtual discussion groups, while taking care of my work assignments. After graduating, I knew such opportunities had to be shared to meet the learning challenges many students are facing. These experiences led the team at YEC to come up with the YEC Digital Media Internship Program. Our youth-led online initiative  prepares youth, especially university students, for the 21st-century digital workplace by offering them practical and hands-on education, leadership, and employment in journalism, the arts, technology, and SRHR information and services. Partnering with communication students, young media professionals, activists, and bloggers, students have learnt how to produce content to be shared with thousands, elevating youth perspectives on the most important issues we face. Through our proven model, young people are transformed into career-ready young adults and in addition, we have helped transform their storytelling techniques.

Our Digital Program does more than make young people more employable – it empowers them and gives them the confidence to deal with many facets of life. Uganda’s education system is grossly inadequate as it does not prepare students to cope with real life challenges, instead it places emphasis on fact storage and memorization. As a result, the Education system turns out people who are passive, a poor guise for discipline rather than encouraging inquisitive and innovative minds.  Sexuality education is rarely comprehensive and not at all or not systematically provided at school level. Young people have continued to express the need for comprehensive sexuality education and for referrals to appropriate services.

Our digital program, therefore aims at enabling students to discover their purpose in life and equip them with the creativity necessary for providing solutions to the challenges facing society. In addition it offers them practical, hands-on education, leadership and employment preparatory Techniques in journalism, arts, technology and SRHR information and services so that they are highly employable.

Through outdoor and social media activities, we have learnt that young people usually seek to affirm their identity, acceptance, and independence through online interactions and purposely project a more aspirational version of themselves online. Certain platforms like Whatsapp have been utilised as more private and trustworthy places, while Facebook and Instagram are more about public image. Youth have been especially concerned with authenticity and have always been inquisitive and verify who they interact with on online platforms.

Another big lesson has been that our online programs co-designed with youth and which leverage comprehensive digital marketing and communication strategies, have increased access to youth-friendly SRH information and services. The website has gained momentum, growing from 401 users at inception to 11,515 (Eleven thousand five Hundred fifteen) total listens. The eRadio program has been absorbed by a larger station called “Equality Radio,” ensuring its sustainability. YEC has also hosted offline events ranging in location from universities to slum communities with in-person discussion forums that complement the radio programs. The radio program has hosted celebrities, key leaders and activists, and by using innovative media, has promoted youth advocacy by directly linking young people to policy makers and to the pressing issues that affect their health. The program provides clear and accurate information, highlights available services, points out policy gaps and defines youth-led policy directions. Over 5000 young people have participated in the community events to date. The YEC radio Facebook page has also grown from 900 to 4000 followers. This social media platform initiates SRHR conversations and links to a Whatsapp group to further build a youth community. The group has 247 members where young people network and discuss issues relevant to their health: https://chat.whatsapp.com/6hdBhhQm1sCDDu1DPIIPmb and this platform awareness is being raised and it also acts a mobilization tool for the organization. Through the social media campaigns with young people and policy makers, we hope to further FP2020’s pledge of bringing modern contraception within reach of additional 120 million women and girls by 2020.

We are happy to report that as a result of the grant support from Women Deliver and Partners towards our interventions, a state-of-the art physical radio studio has been constructed and is fully equipped with radio equipment to support online radio programming with young people as presenters and radio programmers. Ten young journalists have been recruited and trained as radio workforce members. They have been oriented on SRHR issues to help them deliver radio programming for young people tailored to meet their specific needs. Through the project, YEC has organized one public advocacy event addressing SRHR issues of Young people: a youth-led marathon to commemorate International Youth Day. It took place on 12 August 2018 at Makerere University and participants were provided with information on SRHR including family planning.  In total 359 people participated, of which 177 were female and 182 were male. Of these, 172 came from the city capital – Kampala, while 187 people came from neighboring districts of Wakiso, Mukono, Mityana, Luweero and Mpigi. Few participants came from Oyam district. It is also worth noting that 52 of the participants were students and five were Persons with Disability (PWDs).

Additionally, over ten interviews with young people have been conducted – questioning them about their experiences accessing contraception. These have been included in documentaries which are currently running on YEC Radio at www.esrhr.org/. These also include the voices of young advocates speaking on what they think about SRHR, including discussion on contraceptives and the challenges they face while accessing services and information. Furthermore, an interactive website, as well as a mobile app providing family planning information has been upgraded by a consultant, and details are available at http://esrhr.org/. This is complimented by two structured mini tweet-up recordings involving a select group of panelists including Government representatives and Youth Leaders. With approximately 30 participants in each, these discussions were conducted and shared on the different project social media platforms.

Above all, to sustain our efforts, YEC is now working with major Reproductive Health organizations such as Marie Stopes Uganda, Naguru Teenage Centre and Reproductive Health Uganda to coordinate the online helpline and SMS platforms that support young people seeking key information on SRHR, HIV/Aids and family planning services.

Conclusively, over the six months of this project, YEC has worked to advocate, and promote access and utilization of contraceptive services among sexually active young people.  The project has provided timely, accurate and up-to-date SRHR and family planning options, information and services for Adolescents and Youth in Uganda. Our Youth-led, youth-focused digital platforms have been an effective tool at breaking down barriers to SRHR information and services, as well as building youth voice in health advocacy.

The YEC is a youth-led, non-profit, non-partisan, community organization created to amplify youth voices for gender equality and social justice through advocacy, capacity building, community mobilization and empowerment.

Online links:

https://www.facebook.com/YECRadio1/?modal=admin_todo_tour

https://esrhr.org/

www.yecuganda.org/

http://youthequalitycenteruganda.blogspot.ug/?view=magazine

 

 

Ali Kaviri is an advocate and a Women Deliver Young Leader. The Women Deliver Young Leaders Program is a catalyst for rising advocates, providing access to small grants, training, a digital university, speaking opportunities, and networking. Since 2010, a total of 700 young people from 138 countries have increased their impact through the award-winning program so far. Many will be coming together in Vancouver this June for Women Deliver 2019, the world’s largest conference on gender equality. This piece was produced in partnership between Women Deliver and Wellbeing for Women.

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