To Prevent Abuse, Young People Must Know their Rights

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence and suicide.

Recently, a Twitter user named @twadi_doll shared her story fearlessly and curtly online – giving many people a reality check and leaving them feeling shaken.

Twadi narrated in her thread that at 13 years – orphaned and young – she found herself living with a pastor and his wife.

A respected…no, scratch that…a revered member of society, the man of God raped Twadi her on a regular basis. On other occasions, he would call his friends and they took turns exploiting her body. As if that wasn’t enough, the pastor would ask her constantly to seek forgiveness from God, for making him commit a sin.  

Since she had nowhere to go and was being blackmailed by the pastor for receiving food and shelter from him for 3 years, Twadi couldn’t escape the reach of the preacher’s hand. Even when she spoke out in church, she was called a liar and a demon who had been sent to tempt and disorganise the pastor in his job of shepherding the Lord’s people.

As a result of the continued sexual abuse, Twadi became pregnant and 6 months later, her teachers learnt of her story and offered her immediate support. They opened a case against the pastor, who in shame committed suicide. An abortion was arranged for Twadi and painful as it was, she took the option because she had long decided that either the baby dies or she commits suicide herself.

Twadi’s story calls upon us all to play our part in improving SRHR information and service access to young people.

This lack of access spirals into multiple other challenges, and sadly, it is the young person who suffers. Their untapped potential is heavily undermined.

For starters, we should always be able to come out and condemn what is wrong, no matter the position or reputation of the person in question. The pastor’s wife, years later after her husband’s death, wrote Twadi a letter saying she knew about the abuse the whole time, but found it better than her man going out to cheat. In Twadi’s own words, “she used me as a glue to hold her marriage together.” The pastor’s wife betrayed and failed Twadi, and her suffering falls as equally on her shoulders as it does on the pastor’s.

We need to pay special attention to young people’s voices on their reproductive health concerns with as open a mind as possible.

Sometimes we can’t understand young people by assuming we know who they are and what they want, especially if we aren’t young people ourselves. The pastor’s congregation was way off course in this case, defending the pastor simply because of his position and ignoring the truth Twadi was telling.

If even one of them had taken time to hear her out, it could have changed her fortune. We should seek virtual spaces where young people are free to talk about their challenges with no fear of judgement, and where they are sure they will be believed and helped.

It is critical that we provide young people with information on their rights so that they can know when to say no, how to say it and how to defend themselves against manipulation and abuse.

The more we starve young people of such information, the more we make them vulnerable to attacks and abuse and the multiple challenges that ripple from those.

Finally, we need to work with stakeholders who can put policies in place to ease the combatting of these challenges. In Uganda, for example, we have been advocating for an operational School Health Policy where we can provide sexual and reproductive health and rights information to young people that fits the context we live in.

Such a document is key, because then we can arm young people with knowledge, and we will have the backing of the law. It is something that policy makers and governments should consider, lest we see more young people come out with stories similar to Twadi’s.

This selfless story should be an eye opener.

Many young people are undergoing such horrific challenges, and the veils of religion and culture, which otherwise should be guiding us to a sane and loving society, are being used as defences and barriers against SRHR access. Such incidents are indeed present in our society and the best we can do is speak out against them, bring the perpetrators to justice and provide young people with information and services so that they can make informed decisions and protect themselves.

PS: Twadi has moved on and is strong now. However, is that what we want, for all young people to become strong like her and move on? Or is it better to stamp abuse out once and for all? Something must change in our communities, right here and right now.

Family Planning Realities for Young People in Nepal

In many developing regions, young people still lack access to safe and effective family planning methods, for reasons ranging from lack of information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities. Young people are still being prevented from making informed autonomous decisions about their lives and their bodies.

Speaking from my own experience in Nepal, values about sexuality vary and are defined by culture and religion. One common barrier is social stigma, which discourages young people from openly discussing their needs and seeking the necessary interventions.

Nepal is one of the countries with fairly high adolescent fertility rates. Age at marriage is an especially important variable shaping fertility levels in Nepal, since it is a society where premarital sexual involvement is strongly disapproved of. The high rate of adolescent childbearing is a result of early age at marriage among women.

Nepal Demographic and Health Survey data reports some encouraging trends, such as the progressively increasing age at marriage over the past 15 years. However, there has not been a similar increase in the age at which adolescent girls begin childbearing.

In Nepal, the level of unmet need for family planning remains high.

Some adolescents cannot afford to pay for services, and even if they can, many fear that they’ll be required to provide parental consent before they can actually receive those services.

Young people have the right to make informed decisions about their lives. Integrating their perspectives and helping them overcome the social, legal and practical barriers they face is critical to achieving the goals of Family Planning 2020 (FP2020).

The Government of Nepal is committed to improving health outcomes in the country, and several policies and strategies have been put into place. The recent initiatives by government to provide family planning services through satellites and mobile clinics as well as community health volunteers is commendable to expand the reach of services in area of low accessibility.

Despite significant efforts, the idea of offering family planning services to young people is still not well accepted and easy to advocate for in Nepal. 

In advocating for young people’s rights to access family planning, factors such as age, religion, livelihood and education need to be taken into account. It is also true that young people are often more likely to seek information about reproductive health from informal sources.

Accordingly, to advance progress, information should be provided through media, peers and informal sectors. Peer education can be an effective in facilitating young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services and influencing social norms. Providing adolescents with Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) has been shown to improve adolescent sexual reproductive health knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors when implemented well.

Adolescents and youth constitute a large section of the population in Nepal. Given its size and likely trajectory of growth in the future, this population warrants a focused policy attention, especially when it comes to education, health and population. Adolescents make up a high percentage of Nepal’s total population, and so policies and programs in family planning and reproductive health will have to be expanded to meet the needs of these groups.

For adolescent SRH programs to be effective, we need substantial efforts from the government along with the non-governmental organizations and the private sector. Unproductive approaches should be abandoned, proven approaches should be implemented. New approaches should be explored that better respond to adolescents’ needs.

We must commit to providing young people with the tools to take action in their communities and identifying funding opportunities for youth-led efforts.

As we continue to build the framework for Universal Health Coverage, we must ensure meaningful and sustainable youth engagement on family planning at all levels.

Women in Rural Zimbabwe are Being Left Behind

Being a young woman living in a rural or remote community can be very daunting. You have to fight tirelessly to loosen yourself from the grip of sociocultural stigmatization to have any sense of autonomy over your sexuality.

The situation is worsened by the absence of easy access to modern family planning methods. The problem lies in the fact that when coming up with sexual and reproductive interventions for women and adolescents, our governments still rely on ‘a one size fits all’ approach.

But women in rural areas have different lifestyles and challenges than women living in urban communities.

When it comes to sexual and reproductive health, one size fits all really makes no sense. One size fits all isn’t good enough.

In Zimbabwe, the fact that young women and adolescents in rural and remote communities are still struggling to access modern family planning methods – or even comprehensive sex education – is overlooked. These issues are still regarded as taboo, and in my community you can’t talk openly about them.

It’s a different scenario for women and adolescents in urban communities within Zimbabwe. In urban areas, it’s possible to access both information and services through youth friendly centres, Non Governmental Organisations and other diverse forums.

I believe that women can only enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights if they have access to relevant services and supplies – including access to contraceptives and accurate information on how to use them – regardless of geographical area or socioeconomic status.

The government of Zimbabwe is committed to ensuring improved availability of and access to quality integrated family planning services for all women irrespective of age, marital status and their geographical location by the year 2020.

A sizeable number of interventions have been made. For example, we now have an ambassador for Family Planning to advocate for family planning. This is a great initiative, but in rural areas this ambassador is not visible, and so issues are misrepresented! This type of intervention is relative – it primarily benefits the adolescents and young women in urban areas the brand ambassador is engaging with – which makes it an unfit approach for women collectively.

I believe that this kind of intervention leaves a lot of women behind. 

A large percentage of Zimbabwean women are in rural communities. Adolescents and young women in rural areas need interventions they can relate to – services that resonate with their particular reality and their existing level of understanding.

As much as there have been family planning and contraceptive outreach services, it is still absurd that in rural areas adolescents and young women continue to have unwanted pregnancies and new cases of HIV infections. The reason behind this is a lack of positive and affirmative approaches towards women’s sexuality.

From my experience in a rural area, the healthcare service providers are not youth friendly and they tend to have a negative perception of young women trying to access family planning. As a result, adolescents and young women shy away from these health centres as they don’t trust the service providers.

This is very disturbing, as trust should be one of the core values health service providers should strive to uphold at all times. I believe that it would be a great idea for genuinely youth friendly centres to be established in rural and remote areas. This would encourage adolescents and young women to seek out sexual education and feel comfortable asking questions about the family planning methods that will work best for them. It would also help conservative rural communities to recognize family planning as not only a priority, but also a right.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and adolescents in rural communities should be prioritized in Zimbabwe, and the government must be held accountable for delivering meaningful and diverse approaches in tackling the family planning challenges our country faces. Without this, achieving the FP2020 targets will not be possible.

If truth be told, rural women and adolescents have had enough of being left behind.

Join us LIVE at ICFP2018!

We’re excited to announce that Girls’ Globe will be part of the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning in Rwanda next week.

From Monday 12 – Thursday 15 November, we’ll join thousands of advocates, young people, political leaders, scientists, policymakers and researchers from within the global family planning community. And we want you to come with us!

If you are interested sexual and reproductive health and rights you can attend the conference from wherever you are in the world through the ICFP Hub, and by joining the Virtual Conference on Facebook.

You’re invited to join Girls’ Globe’s LIVE events and reporting!

There are loads of ways to engage with Girls’ Globe online during the conference and you can catch everything on our  ICFP2018 LIVE page. Here’s what you don’t want to miss next week – make sure to RSVP to each event and follow us @girlsglobe on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook.

Monday 12 November 

Welcome to #ICFP2018: The Girls’ Globe team on the ground in Kigali, Rwanda welcome you to the International Conference on Family Planning 2018. While we say hi to people arriving for the opening ceremony, we will start a conversation with you about expectations for this year’s conference. We will talk to you about the ways you can engage online during conference – and what you don’t want to miss this week! 

Tuesday 13 November

Family Planning Commitments for Young People: In this episode, we will highlight young people’s priorities in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we will shine the spotlight on the family planning commitments being made for young people around the world. You will have the opportunity to interact and to ask your question and share your priorities in a live Q&A.

Wednesday 14 November 

Stories at the Heart of SRHR (in partnership with sayitforward.org): In this episode, we will highlight a more personal side of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we’ll shine a spotlight on women’s stories of overcoming challenging norms, stigma and taboos in their work with family planning. You will have the opportunity to join this conversation LIVE by sharing your own story and connecting in solidarity as others around the world share theirs. 

Thursday 15 November 

A Global Movement of Action: In this episode, we will highlight the actions that people are taking around the world to advance family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights. We will shine a spotlight on YOU and some of our partner organizations in the studio and discuss the actions they are taking in the next year, the needs that they have to advance their work, and the change that they want to see in 2020. You can join the conversation LIVE by adding your perspectives and inspiration in a livestreamed Q&A.

Providing family planning services to urban migrant workers in Bangladesh garment factories: In this segment, Girls’ Globe will interview Dr. Jewel Alam Azad of CARE to discuss access to quality sexual and reproductive health information and services for urban garment workers in Bangladesh. You’ll be able to join the conversation by asking your own questions to Dr. Jewel Alam Azad.

Join Girls’ Globe’s #ICFP2018 conversations by sharing your voice, your perspective and your story with us throughout the week. We’ll see you there! 

How Activists and Organizations are Using Social Media to Promote Family Planning

When Imali Ngusale hosts social media discussions about sex and family planning, to inform people about subjects they are not exposed to at home or in school, she often uses numbers and codes to keep the conversation under wraps.

“We do this because when it goes to social media … somebody may need to find out where they can get youth friendly services — and if their parents or relatives are following them, you want to make it discreet,” Ngusale said of the online chats, which usually consist of more than 100 curious youths who use Twitter to talk about reproductive health. “It is an innovative way to be discreet but also cool.”

Ngusale, a 27-year-old social media strategist who works for the Centre for the Study of Adolescence in Nairobi, Kenya, said she has to do “some very good ground work” before each discussion, emailing people to inform them when conversations will occur and what code words will be used.

“You can create meaning through different trends,” she said.

Ngusale was one of dozens of young people at the fourth International Conference on Family Planning in Bali, Indonesia, in late January, who uses social media to better connect with and provide information to people seeking sexual education.

At the Planned Parenthood of New York City, Judith Gomez works with about 10 teenagers to create relatable online content for youths as a way to teach them about sex and their organization.

“We really need to meet young people and teenagers where they are — and in New York City, that’s online,” she said during a presentation at the conference. “An important part is that the content is created by teens, for teens.”

Gomez, a 23-year-old Dominican woman from the Bronx in New York City, said one the best way to connect teenagers to family planning is through memes and videos. She showed examples of this at the conference, which included a meme of Ash Ketchum from the Japanese animated cartoon “Pokémon,” with the caption, “Protection. I choose you!”

Another was an image of the Simpson family from the American sitcom “The Simpsons,” walking down the street with the caption, “Going to PPNYC with squad.”

“Social media is a vital source to how young people communicate,” Gomez said, adding that it is “a free or low cost way to reach out and show young people that their health is important.”

In countries where young people are not as acquainted with social media, advocates use other means of communicating to reach the general public, such as radio and television.

Desmond Nji Atanga, a young leader at Women Deliver, said in Cameroon, a country in central Africa, radio reaches the largest amount of people, especially in rural regions where some don’t have ways to learn about reproductive health.

“All we can do is to further encourage young people in the area to join social media” so they can get information quicker and easier,” Nji Atanga said.

Patrick Segawa, who founded Public Health Ambassadors Uganda, a youth-led community organization that seeks to address sexual and reproductive issues, said he tries “to provoke discussion online and discuss issues on reproductive health” through social media. His organization, which has more than 2,100 followers on Twitter and likes on Facebook combined, produces short videos and shares catchy phrases in the hopes to educate people on the Internet.

Segawa, who holds a bachelor’s degree in public health from the International Health Sciences University in Kampala, Uganda, said he met people at the conference who already knew him through various online networks. “People tend to associate your name with what you post,” he said. “So by the time you get to see them, they know your face and are like, ‘Oh … I’ve seen your posts — you do great stuff.”

As Maureen Odour, a 30-year-old young leader at Women Deliver in Kenya, put it: “A young person in the U.S. can tweet something and in Africa they can see something about it. Social media connects youth beyond the border.”

Cover Photo is of Maureen Odour, credit to authors. This story was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Youth and Family Planning: Include Us at the Table

Numerous topics regarding sexual advocacy and education, from contraceptive use to abortions, were discussed at the International Conference on Family Planning in late January. And while experts flew to Nusa Dua, Indonesia, from all over the world, there was one general consensus: world leaders must include youth in conversations and decisions about family planning.

“It is so important … to engage in open dialogue with young people in general and ensure that their voices are heard and that they are included — not as tokens, not as examples of ‘OK, let’s find the youth who can speak for two minutes’ — but really link, leverage, integrate and create ownership,” Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver, said during a panel she led with a handful of young leaders.

From SM Shaikat, a 26-year-old youth adviser who created an anti-dowry awareness program in Bangladesh, to Patrick Segawa, who founded a youth-led community organization that seeks to address sexual and reproductive issues in Uganda, hundreds of young people came to the fourth annual conference to make their voices heard.

Without being asked, many said policy makers often neglect young people’s ideas and thoughts about family planning. For Sarah McKee, 24, of Charlottesville, Virginia, it is crucial to involve the people that interventions are created for every step of the way. “Having everyone at the table and making sure it’s not tokenism, ya know?” said McKee, who works as a project associate at Management Sciences for Health who works with the Leadership, Management and Governance Project.

While getting involved with discussions is a good first step, Melisa Trad Malmod, who works with several youth groups in Argentina, said it is also important young people are “represented in the most diverse way possible.”

“In Argentina, youth is getting … to decision making places and everything,” she explained after speaking on the panel with Iversen. “But it’s totally used by politicians and usually young people that get there belong to the same party as the president or whatever, so the rest of the youth is not represented.”

As Iversen put it: “It is the opportunities and the needs and the choices of young people today who count for half the world’s population that will define the world not as only as we know it, but as we want it.”

Cover Photo of Melisa Trad Malmod, with credit to authors. This story was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.