October 11 is the International Day of the Girl, one of CARE’s favorite days of the year. In some ways, we celebrate girls every day. After all, empowering girls and women is the focus of CARE’s mission, and we believe they are the key to overcoming global poverty.
This year, International Day of the Girl is focused on the empowerment of girls in crisis situations. According to UNICEF, approximately 535 million children worldwide were living in countries affected by conflict, natural disasters, epidemics, and other emergencies last year. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one such country.
DRC is located in the Great Lakes region of Africa and home to breathtaking scenery and vibrant people. Although civil war here officially ended in 2003, conflict between government forces and various armed groups has persisted and remains ongoing in certain regions. DRC is rich in natural resources, but it remains mostly poor in terms of infrastructure and economic opportunity for its citizens. Women and girls, in particular, face enormous challenges just to survive and provide for themselves and their families.
The health system in DRC is weak and unable to fully meet the primary health needs of the population, including sexual, reproductive, and maternal health needs. Tens of thousands of Congolese women and girls die each year from pregnancy and childbirth – many are only teenagers.
Adolescents and young people in DRC often find it difficult or impossible to access health care. Information and services related to sex and reproductive health (SRH) are especially hard to find due to cultural norms and expectations (such as abstinence before marriage) that prohibit young people from seeking them out. If a young person does manage to reach a health clinic or provider, it is not uncommon for them to be denied care because of their age or even shamed for seeking it out.
“Why do you need condoms? You’re too young to be having sex! Go home!”
Of course, teenage girls and boys in DRC (and around the world) are having sex whether or not adults approve. And without knowledge of sexual health or access to contraceptives, girls are accidentally getting pregnant. Girls like Claudine.
Claudine is 19 years old and lives in Goma, the bustling capital of the North Kivu province of DRC. Not knowing how to protect herself, she became pregnant and gave birth to a child at age 17. She has returned to school and is studying social sciences at the Uzima Institute.
Fortunately, SRH information and services are becoming more available to Goma teenagers through Vijana Juu (translates to ‘Stand Up for Youth’), a project implemented by CARE DRC and funded by the UK Department for International Development. Adolescents and young people partnered with CARE staff to identify barriers to accessing and using contraception, brainstormed solutions, and worked with community leaders and health administrators to change the situation.
They recognized that their peers did not feel comfortable going to local health centers because they might run into judgmental adults, so certain clinics responded by setting up discreet side entrances available to youth only and created adolescent-specific referral cards to improve access to health services. Open meeting spaces designed by young people were established next to health centers where adolescents could come to talk with their peers about issues related to SRH in a relaxed environment that belongs to them, and teenagers could volunteer to be trained as peer leaders, providing information and referrals to their friends and neighbors.
CARE is helping to train health providers to recognize and challenge their own values and biases toward teenage sex that could discourage youth from seeking services. CARE is also supporting health facilities to provide a full range of contraceptive options and reproductive health services to adolescent girls and young women.
Over 6000 adolescents received sexual and reproductive health counseling and services through this program, and many began using contraception for the first time. About 30% of these new contraceptive users are girls, and 65% of them selected a highly effective, long-acting and reversible method (implant or IUD).
After her child was born, Claudine visited one of the Vijana Juu youth-friendly health clinics for an IUD so she could finish school without the risk of getting pregnant again. She has become a vocal advocate for safe sex in her community, and advises her friends to use contraception. When we asked why, she explained:
“Girls my age forget that sex can lead to harmful consequences like unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, and even death. Young people need to be informed. Adolescent girls and boys have a right to sexual health to make a better future and realize their dreams.”