Listening to Youth When It Matters Most

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By Christine Ennulat
Posted on 1/19/2011
 Listening to Youth in Zambia
 Sadia Parveen, third from left in the second row, poses with a group of young people in Zambia.

Since joining ChildFund in 2007 to work on USAID-funded projects in Angola and Zambia, reproductive health specialist Sadia Parveen has seen firsthand how reproductive health is tied to many other facets of life, including overall health as well as social and economic well-being.

It’s a simple matter of cause and effect: In developing countries, if a young girl gets pregnant, she will have to quit school, which diminishes her chance of becoming a productive member of society at the same time as she is acquiring an additional mouth to feed. Because she has been “tarnished,” her chances of marriage are severely reduced.

Even if she is married — and marriage as young as age 12 is not unusual in developing countries — living in extreme poverty means she is probably undernourished, and that means her baby will likely be born underweight. If the mother is very young, then both her health and the baby’s will be further compromised. She will probably give birth without the help of a trained care provider. If she is married, she may become pregnant again within a few short months of giving birth. She may have as many as seven or eight babies — simply because the more she has, the more will survive.

And the generational cycle of poverty turns again.

Parveen emphasizes the importance of community awareness around delaying marriage and pregnancy: “It doesn’t only have a health consequence, but it also impacts productivity in terms of livelihoods and economic productivity, agricultural productivity.”

This effect is the rationale behind the Angola-Zambia project’s goal: to integrate reproductive health into ChildFund’s existing health programs and youth leadership activities, in order to lay solid groundwork for mindfulness in future life decisions.

Angola, still recovering from a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002, required special consciousness-raising around abuse, rape, abduction, psychosocial harassment and physical harassment, according to Parveen. Youth also lacked basic information about things like menstruation and how HIV is transmitted. Staff trained 900 peer educators — all youth — who shared the information with another 40,000 youth. “They worked out of the community ‘safe places,’ which were used as a common ground for people to come together to talk about any and everything,” says Parveen.

“One of the things that we learned through these discussions is that girls also have rights,” said a 17-year-old Angolan boy who participated in the program. “Before, many boys did not think like this.”

The Zambia program included more of a community outreach focus. Youth peer educators were trained, says Parveen, “about the importance of delaying pregnancy and, when pregnant, practicing safe motherhood, giving birth in a hospital facility or with a trained health care provider. The youth in Zambia were more like networkers in the community, the referral agents who would establish a link between traditional and trained health care providers.”

The Ministries of Health in both countries looked hard at the ChildFund-implemented programs as models for replication, and Zambia is proceeding with a USAID-funded program designed to train youth peer educators in reproductive health issues, similar to the Angola program.

Youth and the realm of reproductive health, says Parveen, converge to form the ideal entry point for building the awareness young people need to make wise choices in their lives going forward. “There are a lot of elements of reproductive health that concern young people’s growth and development and evolution,” she says. “And as we engage with them through this entry point, we get them to collectively start working in other areas — not only in health but also in terms of other interventions like livelihood and education, promoting civic rights, empowerment, gender issues, reducing violence.” All of which are tied to self-value.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about creating a healthy society,” Parveen adds. “Fifteen years down the road, these are the kids who are going to be taking control of that particular community. So we’re looking at healthier communities, stronger societies.”