There are approximately 1.2 billion young people aged 15-24 in the world, and 87%  live in developing countries. Most of these, especially girls and young women, face a number of barriers in realizing their sexual and reproductive health and rights.  Malawi one of the least developed countries in sub-Saharan Africacontinues to register challenges in the delivery of HIV and Sexual Health Services for young people despite being a signatory to several global commitments like the ICPD, FP2020, and the Maputo Plan of Action, among others.

Growing up as a young woman in Malawi, I have witnessed first hand the existing challenges that young people face in realizing their Sexual Reproductive Health Rights,from limited comprehensive information to unavailable services coupled with societal stigma that aims to restrict  all matters related to sexual practices to the confines of “matrimonial jurisdiction ”. As a result of these restrictions, Malawi’s youthful population (35% of the total population  are young people aged 10-24) has been subjected to negative HIV and SRH outcomes. This has been reflected in recent data findings which indicate that there has been a sharp increase in teenage pregnancies. According to the 2016 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, 29% of teenage Malawian girls have already given birth. As well as this, HIV prevalence rates among young people in the country also continue to be high. A UNAIDS report  estimated that almost a third of all new HIV infections in Malawi in 2016 occurred among young people aged 15-24. Of these, 70% were among young women.

When I was in my second year of my undergraduate studies, I volunteered to work at a community-based organization. During my time at the organization, I  experienced first-hand how girls and young women are subjected to various discriminatory practices, including early and forced marriages, dropping out of school, and early pregnancies. These were attributed to several factors such as lack of adequate information and discriminatory gender norms. Their experiences ignited a passion to make a difference for girls and women in my community and my country at large. It is against this background that in 2016 I was motivated to apply for the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program, an international three year fellowship program that is offered to young people from all parts of the world that are below the age of 30 who are working to advance the health, rights, and wellbeing of women and girls. Through the program I have had my capacity built in various areas, including Sexual Reproductive Health Rights, advocacy, communication and project management.

Equipped with the right information and skills from the Young Leaders Program, in 2018 Women Deliver granted me a $5,000 small grant to implement the Say It Get It Project. This  advocacy focused project aimed to influence the Government of Malawi through the Ministry of Health in order to address the barriers that exist in the provision of, and access to, HIV and Sexual Reproductive Health Services for young people in Malawi between the ages of 15 and 24. The project incorporated the use of digital technology as a way of reaching out to as many young people as possible with awareness of the key HIV/SRH policies and empowering them to report the existing gaps in policy implementation and demand for improved change.

Through the Say It Get It project, 18 young people were trained as youth advocates in sexuality education and advocacy as a way of reaching out to their peers with key messages on SRH and HIV/AIDs. They were further trained on the core components of advocacy and communication, including the steps that have to be carried out to achieve an effective advocacy program and how to deal with opposing forces. The youth advocates initiated meetings with service providers from four targeted health facilities in Dedza and Lilongwe districts as a way of influencing them to strengthen the provision of SRH services, with a specific focus on youth friendly health services and ensuring that key SRH commodities (i.e contraceptives, condoms, and HIV testing kits) are available.

“I have really learnt a lot through the Say It Get It Project. Previously, I didn’t know that as a young person my voice would count. But after going through the training, I have been able to take an active role in my community. I am able to speak up during community meetings and engage with elders on the needs and wants of young people.” Youth Advocate Dedza.

For the digital technology part of the project, the project collaborated with Malawi’s biggest technology hub, Mhub, and built on their already existing technological platforms. One of these is the  Ufulu Wanga human rights portal, Malawi’s first human rights portal that provides a platform for citizens to report in real time on human rights violations using basic SMS technology. The project made use of this SMS line for young people in the targeted districts to report the challenges that they face in SRH service delivery in their community health facilities.

The key take away message from implementing the Say It Get It project is that young people play a crucial role in advocacy for SRHR and HIV; engagement is not only their right, but  is pivotal to progress for all and to realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

 

 

Talimba Bandawe 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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