The Community Health Drive: A COVID-19 Innovation

Local, grassroots organizations have the pleasure of working on-the-ground and communicating directly with those they serve. They ensure that vulnerable populations receive the care, information, and sexual and reproductive health services they need.

How can we all (individuals, organizations, and governments) use innovation to adapt our work to the dynamic intricacies present in this COVID-19 world? And, how can we use the lessons learned during this pandemic as a stepping stone towards a more sustainable future? 

Innovation in Information Sharing

Creativity, innovation, and partnership are key elements in creating effective and engaging community outreach campaigns. 

Since March, Girl Up Initiative Uganda has been working tirelessly to build youth-friendly, community-centric, and innovative solutions to the complexities accompanying social-distancing and lockdown measures in Uganda. 

One of our main concerns is the rapid spread of harmful misinformation or the complete lack of access to reliable resources. This disproportionately affects vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations. 

UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, Melissa Fleming, stated “COVID-19 is not just this century’s largest public health emergency, but also a communications crisis…”.  

An important point to also keep in mind is that this ‘communications crisis’ impacts girls and women more severely than men due to the gender digital divide present in most low and middle-income countries. 

In Africa, the proportion of women using the Internet is 25% lower than the proportion of men using the Internet. With an onslaught of information constantly being circulated without verification, people—mainly women and girls—are left in the dark, with many important questions unanswered. 

Mobility and Partnerships as a Solution: Community Health Drive

In response to the complex relationship of COVID-19 and information sharing (with the ability to spread faster than the actual virus itself), Girl Up Initiative Uganda decided to host our first-ever Community Health Drive through our Ni-Yetu Youth Program

The health drive consisted of our team driving in a special, colorful health van to reach the heart of urban communities. We shared health messages via loudspeaker and disseminated information materials.

Information included:

  • public health guidelines for COVID-19,
  • mental health,
  • sexual and reproductive health (SRH),
  • assistance for survivors of violence,
  • and more based on the community’s needs. 

Driving through the streets, we relayed health messages via loudspeaker and megaphone to not only share information. We also wanted to entice curious community members to come out and take a look at the action. 

And it worked! 

After months of lockdown, people were excited and happy to receive health services and resources straight to their doors. One-on-one conversations proved to be fruitful. They fostered openness and trust between Girl Up Uganda staff and community members. 

This was a powerful and fun way to reach people where they are. We were able to provide impactful community-based care to vulnerable populations. 

Our Director of Programs, Clare Tusingwire, stressed the importance of this Health Drive. She pointed out that it was a necessary way to learn what our communities are experiencing at this time. She also said it was a way to remind them that Girl Up Uganda is here to help and support them. 

“This is a key element to bringing about change. People are hungry for information in any way…We even had one parent reach out to us after the Community Health Drive with the hope that we could counsel her daughter.”

The Key of Partnerships

We cannot work alone, especially during these challenging times. 

Girl Up Initiative Uganda knows the importance of building community trust through key partnerships. This helps to assuage fears and promote genuine interest in receiving our information and messages. Therefore, we coordinated our health drive with the local authorities from the Kampala Capital City Authority to ensure safety and good health practices during the day. 

We also partnered with Action 4 Health Uganda and Naguru Teenage Information and Health Centre. These are two well-established and respected organizations supporting the rights of adolescents to sexual and reproductive health services in Kampala. 

With the permission of city officials and partnerships with other organizations, we were able to innovatively disseminate critical information to those most in need. 

There has never been a greater need for access to valid and scientifically-sound information. 

Fighting the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 does not require the use of sophisticated technologies. It requires empowering communities with accurate information, dispelling fears, and promoting togetherness. 

Our Health Drive was a beautiful example of using innovative approaches to further our mission – to create a vibrant movement of confident advocates, using their voices and knowledge to support and mentor others.   

 

How Young People Tackle the Climate Crisis Threatening their Pacific Island

Kiribati is one of the least developed countries in the Pacific with few natural resources, limited governance, institutional capacity, and infrastructure. Humanitarian crises are prevalent here, and the occurrence of extreme weather events is likely to increase due to the climate crisis as the sea levels rise and regularly flood coastal homes. 

Safeguarding Communities During Disasters 

Preparedness is key for the local communities. IPPF’s Member Association, the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA) has created a Humanitarian Youth Club. They meet regularly to plan rapid responses for their communities during a disaster.  

This initiative is designed to ensure access to essential sexual and reproductive healthcare during crises for women, girls, and vulnerable groups. Theta, 25, is a member of one of the Humanitarian Youth Clubs. She talks about her experiences and hopes for Kiribati. 

Theta and her daughter. Photo: ©IPPF/Hannah Maule-Ffinch/Kiribati 

Facing Challenges on Remote Pacific Islands 

“People here are taught that the withdrawal method or cycle tracking are the only ways to manage family planning. That’s what I was doing when I found myself with an unplanned pregnancy, and I now have a one-year old daughter who I raise alone.  

We face a lot of challenges here, one of them is disasters and the second is unemployment and school drop out with our youth. A lot of people drop out at senior level of high school and start to be influenced by alcohol.

I think parents’ skills are lacking on how to raise the youth. They tell their children they are not good enough or smart enough. I don’t agree with this though, I think everyone has potential.  

Climate change here is affecting jobs, especially those who are fisherman. When there is a high tide and people can’t fish, there will be no money or earnings for that day, or even food for their family. Even the crops, eventually they will die due to too much hot sun.

There was one family in my community, whose livestock such as cabbage and pumpkins were killed by the saltwater. Even my family, we have lost all our pumpkins. My baby daughter should be able to eat vegetables – but now she cannot as they have all died.  

One of my neighbours – who lived in the area most affected by flooding – lost their house and livelihood due to the rising sea levels. They tried to secure the land with sandbags, but they got discouraged when the high tide would come through. They have now migrated away. 

Young People Leading Community Response to Climate Crisis

The youth in my village have been organized as a club since we were younger. We have been very active and now we are leaders. I have helped the Humanitarian Youth Club to apply for financial grants from the Australian High Commission [for $1,000]. I am recognized as the smartest member who can write in English.  

During the Humanitarian Youth Club meetings, we discuss as a group what we can do for the next strong tide.

We discuss where we can gather as a community and what we can do if even the Maneaba [town hall] floods. If the tide and wind is too strong, we need to go to another safer place, such as another community’s town hall.  

We have learned how to design a disaster plan for the community. We share our ideas on sexual reproductive issues such as STIs. The issues were demonstrated in a drama by youth in our community. One of the volunteers from KFHA described to us how it would feel to be a pregnant woman in a disaster. 

For now, I want to enjoy the chance to be in our own beloved country.

I will not move until the majority have already left. I want my daughter to grow up in the same place I grew up in. Isn’t that what most people would want?” 

This post was written by Nerida Williams, IPPF Senior Humanitarian Communications Advisor & Theta Kiraneti, Humanitarian Youth Club member, Kiribati. Share your insights in the comments section below!

Raising the Girl Agenda in Myanmar

We are still coming off the buzz of a really energetic and earnest Girls’ National Conference in Myanmar. Bringing together adolescent girls from across 70 diverse communities, the conference supported girls to work together and articulate an agenda to submit to regional and national lawmakers.

This agenda will be in the form of a letter. It will describe the barriers faced by girls in communities across Myanmar and the ways that law-makers can help to knock down these barriers so that all girls can achieve their full potential.

Last year, we made a big deal of International Day of the Girl – dedicating almost an entire season to it! We created opportunities for girls from all of our project communities to contribute directly to the development of an agenda for national and regional change – an agenda that would support girls’ development, education, access to safe work, freedom of movement, expression and beyond.

There were two key steps to making this work. Firstly, we held Regional Forums in 15 geographic hubs. Then, based on the outcomes from those events, we built the content and activities needed to make the National Conference both productive and deeply connected to the views and attitudes of adolescent girls.

In the lead up to those Regional Forums, our staff moved around the country with a mission to ensure every girl currently enrolled in our weekly leadership circles — over 3,000 girls — could attend a forum in her region. This would mean every girl could meet with others from nearby areas to discuss the specific, and sometimes invisible, barriers they share which can diminish self-perception and limit  choice.

Girls’ Regional Forums

The forums were focused on consensus-building activities. The day’s discussions were based on what we already knew about the situations of girls in different areas and the concerns girls have expressed to us in the past. In small groups, girls worked through various possible barriers to identify which applied most directly to their lives. They also discussed specific examples of times when, as a girl, they have encountered a barrier, been discriminated against, or felt unheard.

Girls’ National Conference

Immediately following the regional forums, we held our inaugural Girls’ National Conference in the City Hall of the ancient capital of Mandalay. The theme was “Girls, do you know you can fly?”  Attending the conference were 140 adolescent girls – peer-selected delegates representing nearly all of Girl Determined’s project communities.  Each spokesgirl shared on behalf of girls in her unique community, speaking out in a broader discussion with other girls facing sometimes similar and sometimes different issues.

Over two full days, the conference brought girls’ voices and experiences to the fore, while encouraging girls to act as change-makers in their communities and consider a different future for girls and women. Girls heard from one another and were introduced to basic concepts of civic action. Through consensus-building activities, they drafted a joint-letter expressing the concise needs of adolescent girls nation-wide.

Four main issues came out as the most detrimental to girls’ success in Myanmar:

    • inadequate or limited access to education
    • inadequate or limited access to health, nutrition, and sanitation needs
    • feeling unsafe and not knowing how to respond in dangerous situations
    • feeling unable to make decisions and express opinions about their own lives

We expect to see more girls taking issues into their own hands by expressing their needs in a structured way and demanding accountability by those in positions to make decisions.

Building On The Outcomes

Now that the conference has ended, two tasks remain.

Firstly, we will refine and revise the letter before the girls present it to members of parliament. A delegation of six girls from the conference will present the letter and express their concerns and hopes directly to parliamentarians.

Secondly, we will report back to ALL the girls who contributed their experience and insight on what their inputs have gone towards – both at the National Conference and during the direct appeal to lawmakers.

We will report back to all these girls through an article in our Wut Hmon magazine, and through a summary video of the National Conference.  This way, girls who weren’t at the national level gathering can see how their concerns were carried forth by their peers, and can experience the full process from regional forums to visits with parliaments.

We are excited to see how this plays out in the coming months, as girls’ voices resonate through Myanmar to create awareness of the hardships girls face, and of how they can rise up together.

A Trip of a Lifetime with Theatre for a Change

In July of 2017, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. Only a few months earlier, I had been chosen as one of three students in the United States to travel with Concern Worldwide, a non-profit organization currently working in 29 countries to transform the lives of the world’s poorest people. Curious, excited, eager, and more than a little bit scared, I had only just begun to process what I would experience over the next seven days. What I did not know is that I would come home from Malawi a completely changed individual, rethinking each and every aspect of my life.

On our third day in the country, we packed up the van and traveled out to our third destination: Mbembembe Primary School. Little did I know that this small primary school would become a place I would write about and remember forever. At this school I experienced a feeling I had never felt before, and to this day, I still cannot find the right words to describe it. At this school I was introduced to Theatre for a Change, and experienced first-hand what the organization is doing to empower women and girls, providing them with the essential tools, encouragement and education they deserve.

Theatre for a Change works to empower the most vulnerable and marginalised women and girls worldwide to find their voice and assert their rights. They use a combination of drama and participatory learning, with a particular focus on sexual and reproductive health. Theatre for a Change runs a range of projects in Malawi, where they have operated since 2007.

Their work with schools consists of the Teacher Training Project, which trains teachers in Government Training Colleges across the country to improve their own sexual and reproductive health and the health of the students they go on to teach, and the Right to Learn Project. The Right to Learn Project, which I saw in action at Mbembembe Primary School, works to make schools into safer environments for children, focusing on reducing school related gender based violence and discrimination.

Though we only were able to spend an afternoon at the school, the lessons I learned are ones I will carry with me forever. The Student Council group we interacted with had many different purposes and roles within the school community, all extremely important to the success of the program. While talking with some of the children, we learned that abuses are often reported to the Student Council, in which case the students would approach the Head of the school and explain the situation. The Head would then decide (depending on the specific case), whether to contact the police or the Village Head. I thought it was absolutely incredible how involved the students were with the activities.

Using theatre and movement, Theatre for a Change is teaching young girls and boys to interact with one another, gain self confidence, and learn in depth about gender based violence, as well as other school-related issues facing them. We were able to be a part of the activities for the day, interact with the children, and experience firsthand the impact Concern and organizations like Theatre for a Change are having.

‘Agents of Change’ are responsible for managing the program and helping to implement it within the community. ‘Agents of Change’ go through special training in order to be a part of the community’s schools. Yami was the AOC we met with when we visited. She was extremely inspiring and so incredibly passionate about what she was doing. Even when there was no interpreter nearby, dancing, moving, and laughing with the students was a feeling like no other. I remember that day so vividly, and the feeling I had dancing around in that schoolroom, surrounded by joy, positivity and motivation, was simply irreplaceable.

Some of the specific lessons covered in the classroom included school-related gender-based violence and sexual education with a focus on reproductive health and contraceptives. One statistic that stood out to me was the sheer number of girls who skip weeks of school due to their menstrual cycles. Because there is no secluded, private area for them to change every few hours, they must walk the average distance of fifteen kilometers back to their villages to do so. Most decide to stay at home for the remainder of the day, because of the long distance walk back to school. This causes girls to miss important lessons and activities in the classroom.

While talking with the girls afterwards, many of them asked us to provide them with these changing areas, and expressed their disappointment at having to miss out on so many weeks of school. In that moment, I felt a responsibility to come home and share these stories. The children had a passion for learning and growing as human beings. This passion was so strong and so clear to me. I began thinking to myself, “These girls are missing out on opportunities, on an education, simply because they are girls?” It was like a smack in the face. How is this okay? How have I lived so many years of my life complaining about the classes I get to take, the opportunities practically thrown at me, left and right?

In leaving the school, I felt selfish. I felt angry, upset and disappointed in myself for not previously recognising the exceptionally comfortable life I live. However, I also left feeling empowered. I felt responsible for sharing what I had experienced, and responsible for creating a new standard for myself once I arrived back home. I realized that it was normal to feel angry, sad and disappointed. But I was reminded that organizations like Theatre for a Change and Concern Worldwide, along with so many others, are devoting their lives to helping these children.

Theatre for a Change is doing exactly that – changing lives. The human contact and sensitive connections made between students, teachers, and community leaders were nothing short of miraculous. Learning through movement, song, and theatrical exercises can transform lives. To be a part of that journey, even for a day, was a true gift.

For more information on Theatre for a Change visit tfacafrica.com or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube @tfacafrica, and use the hashtag #WeAreTfaC to spread awareness.

 

Schools in Laos are not just for students

Photo credit: Holly Curtis
Photo credit: Holly Curtis

When we pulled up to Houay Lo Primary School dusk was fast approaching, the students were playing soccer, braiding hair and laughter echoed in the mountains.  I could feel the similar energy I felt when staying in my own elementary school after hours – excitement, apprehension, the feeling that I’m getting a glimpse into a world I don’t normally see.  But slowly the parents and older siblings started to arrive and lingered quietly, waiting for what was to come.

In February, I attended a Pencils of Promise (PoP) Community Day at Houay Lo village in Laos.  Community days are part of PoP’s programming and are intended to unite the village around education and show the teachers, parents and students that they can all support one another via the classroom.  We arrive after dinner so that parents and village leaders can come after a day of work and it doesn’t detract from the scheduled school day.

I was there to observe and take photos as PoP leaves it up to our talented local staff to lead the activities and facilitate the discussions.  Although I knew the scheduled activities ahead of time, observing the programs and its various stations in a language I am struggling to learn left me with some very interesting observations.

First, I wholeheartedly believe that the children of this village feel ownership of their school and are excited to learn.

The majority of the students were already there before the PoP staff and parents arrived for the program.  The kids do not feel that the school grounds are restricted to educational hours.  Rather, the school is a meeting place, a playground, a safe place to run, jump and laugh.

Photo credit: Holly Curtis
Photo credit: Holly Curtis

One station at the community day was for parents and kids to draw their ideal school on large sheets of paper.  As I walked around this group, peering over their shoulders at the images, I saw some really inspiring ideas.  Families see the school as a springboard for a garden, clean water source, space to play and cultural meeting spot.  Their new structure does not close when the last bell rings.  It is already serving as a space for kids to play at anytime of day and when the community members are on the same page regarding the potential of this space, they can turn it into a comprehensive area benefitting everyone.

Second, families, particularly mothers, will go to great physical inconveniences to support their child’s education.

Most mothers who came to the community day did not come alone.  After a long day working on the farm they slowly but strongly walked up the hill to the school with a baby in tow or a child in hand.  Many mothers used a piece of cloth, similar to a scarf, to tie the baby to their back and stayed this way, readjusting occasionally, throughout the whole 3-hour evening.  The babies, who often would fall asleep despite the voices of over one hundred people, were there with their mothers to support an older sibling.  And the mothers were willing to bear this physical burden to understand their child’s education.

Third, it is a great equalizer when lessons move away from the traditional lecture style.

All of the community day activities were away from the chalkboard and incorporated physical movement and dialogue.  I saw this working for two reasons: first, many parents in Houay Lo did not have the opportunity to attend school or have a primary level education.  When unfamiliar, the classroom setting can be intimidating.  Will the PoP Program Coordinator call on me?  Will I need to discuss my own experience?  But tonight, the desks were pushed aside and everyone was standing in a circle or split into smaller groups.  Lessons involved moving from group to group in response to the facilitator’s remarks.

Photo Credit: Holly Curtis
Photo Credit: Holly Curtis

Additionally, PoP avoids the traditional teaching approach by incorporating arts and crafts into the community day.  Another activity involved parents and students going through newspapers and magazines and cutting out images that represent what people can do when they have an education.  This activity does not require the ability to read.  It also puts many glamorized faces to the idea of receiving an education.  Students and parents are cutting out images of people or places that are being honored in the media.  In gluing that image to the paper they are saying, “I can do this, too.”

Pencils of Promise believes every child should have access to quality education.  We create schools, programs and global communities around the common goal of education for all.  PoP operates in Guatemala, Ghana and Laos.