Champions for Children: Maggie and Lumbani stand up for the sexual health and rights of young people in Malawi

May 2, 2016

Unprotected sex continues to be the main driver of HIV infection among adolescents in Malawi. For young people to make informed choices regarding their sexual health, the 2-year Healthy Young People project focused on integration of comprehensive sexuality education and youth friendly services. Maggie Kuchonde and Lumbani Mahemane both stand up for sexual health and rights of young people in Malawi and are truly champions for children!

What difference does Healthy Young People make in the lives of young people?

Lumbani:"At one of the mobile clinics I met Leah, a 16 years old girl who told me that her parents could not allow her to access family planning services. Through one of the community dialogue meetings that the project had, her mother understood and accepted that Leah was sexually active. Since that meeting Leah could discuss issues of sexuality with her mother and now she can go and access SRHR services. She said that these services have helped her prevent pregnancy and HIV."

Maggie: "12 year old Esther is a victim of the 3 day initiation ceremony after becoming of age as a cultural belief in communities. Which means she was forced to be absent from school for some days. Esther highlighted that through training under this programme she has been empowered on her sexual rights, and also will ensure that other girls are not treated the way she was. As such, Esther has become more assertive and can support her peers." 

What difference has Healthy Young People made in your own life?

"I have to admit, I was amongst those who thought that it was a taboo to discuss issues of sexuality with young people," says Lumbani. "Thanks to Healthy Young People, now I'm a stout advocate for comprehensive sexuality education among youth."

"I have learned that as a parent, I need to be open to my children while they are young to discuss with them sexual and reproductive health issues before their peers or other people mislead them", Maggie tells. "Even if it's against our culture to discuss these with our young ones."

Lumbani:"I agree with you. In the course of Healthy Young People, I met this 14 years oldgirl who was pregnant. She told me that at one time her friends told her she was lacking vitamin K which they said is found in sperm. She was advised to sleep with a man to get vitamin K for her to have normal growth and that is how she became pregnant."

Maggie adds: "So to avoid this our children need to be taught by ourselves and we should start while they are still young." 

How has Healthy Young People met your expectations?

Above 800 young people and their parents have been reached since the inception of the project. So far, we have seen also great changes in youth's motivation to access health services since there is a well-established linkage between the school and health facility this time around, Lumbani begins. "However, a major challenge that came up is that of consent. The law in Malawi states that a person below the age of 14 must access sexual reproductive health services consented by the guardian."

Maggie adds: "What's more, related to cultural and religious believes in Malawi people are not very much open to discuss sexuality issues with their children in fear that they will end up being sexually active." Lumbani: "It would have been very important if we had parenting activities and also special programmes on culture." "Despite this challenge we have been emphasizing the importance of sexual reproductive health to communities during mobilisation activities so people understand clearly why we were advocating for youth friendly services," Maggie completes.

Another challenge that occurred is that of distance, experienced Lumbani. "Our hospital is about 15 and 18 km from our primary schools, which is discouraging. The hospital through Healthy Young People introduced mobile SRHR services to the community which made the threshold for young people to access services drastically lower."

Maggie experienced both challenging and interesting situations but: "generally we have observed that most of our expectations have been met". Lumbani: "To tell the truth, the project has really met my expectations while opening other new challenges which in the actual planning were not considered". 

What are you most proud of when looking back at the Healthy Young People project?

Lumbani is proud of the link established between the schools and the hospital. "We encouraged the hospital to be open during the weekend so young people -who are at school during the week- can come to the hospital during their own time without problems".

"I am touched with the enthusiasm and interest of the teachers to become more open toseek and discuss any sexual reproductive health issues affecting their life," Maggie continues. "Since they did not have a well-established platform to discuss these issues, the project managed to establish the TUSEME clubs ("Lets speak out"). These now act as the channels for youth communication and access to youth friendly services." 

Healthy Young People has come to an end. How about sustainability of the work done?

"Since we have been working with the Ministry of Education at national level, we have already advocated for inclusion of comprehensive sexuality education in all primary schools in Malawi," Maggie tells. "At community level we have been working with primary education advisors. We expect them to continuously supervise the targeted as well as other surrounding schools."

Lumbani adds: "The peer education training and the subsequent refreshers meant that the peer educator must continue training others in their respective school way beyond funding." Maggie: "The teachers have also been advised to make sure that the TUSEME clubs will stay operational in future."

"Health facilities will continue providing youth friendly services because it's staff is already involved in providing youth friendly health services", Maggie says. "Above all the enthusiasm among health care providers will encourage them to continue working with young people, who are very eager to be able to make informed choices regarding their sexual health," Lumbani concludes. 

Lumbani Mahemane is HIV/AIDS coordinator for Embangweni Mission Hospital in Malawi. In the Healthy Young People project, he is the local coordinator for northern Malawi (Mzimba).

Maggie Kuchonde works as education programme officer at Education Expertise Development Foundation (EEDF) in Mzimba, Malawi.