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“Two youths walk into the tent holding hands, a sign of happiness. Mike, 22, and Milly, 20, have been dating for a while, but they are facing a reoccurring issue: Mike doesn’t want Milly to conceive since they are still in school, but he also doesn’t want her to use any method of contraception. As Milly goes on to describe their story to me, I realise that there is more sadness in this relationship than happiness, because Milly is being forced, however sweetly, to do things that she isn’t comfortable with – like having unprotected sex.”
The reflection above is part of a diary entry from Zopher, a 25-year-old youth councillor and health worker in Bondo, Kenya. He spends his days speaking to youth, such as this young couple, about sexual health and rights and about harmful gender norms that too often dominate behaviour, leading to unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortions, HIV/AIDS, abusive relationships and more. Zopher isn’t just a health worker, though, he’s a listening ear, he is support, he is a non-judgemental source of vital information and he is a lifeline to so many young Kenyans with nowhere else to turn. This is the story of Zopher.
Zopher is a volunteer at the Bondo Youth Centre in Kenya, where he spends his days giving young people advice on their sexual health and rights. It is the only clinic in the entire sub-county offering youth-friendly information and services. Above, Zopher speaks with Sharon, age 19, and Stanley, age 18, about HIV testing in a consultation room at the Youth Centre
Zopher speaks about sexual health
Most of the young people who turn up take not just health advice, but me as their mentor. I have been able to prevent some of the worst cases that might have occurred due to a lack of SRHR information. I recently prevented a young woman from washing her genitals with bleach to get rid of an STI.”
Zopher also conducts training, such as body-mapping exercises, with young people intended to break down harmful gender norms and societal beliefs, contributing to inequality and poor health outcomes.
“Today we haven’t really come to offer services but to meet, talk and interact with fellow youths. I randomly ask youths, when a girl conceives, unplanned, who does the society blame? One youth has said that if the guy is older than the lady, then the guy will be blamed. The answer is refuted and most argue that the community will still blame the girl and ask the young girl what she was doing with an elderly guy. The discussion goes on until almost everyone blames the girl and even say that she may need cleansing.”
Interaction like equals
To make young people feel respected and listened to I take time to fully interact and socialise with them like equals and not making them feel like I am superior.”
The Centre is the only functioning place in the entire sub-county for young people to get accurate information and access different forms of contraception. In this region of Kenya, 21% of young people have either an STI or HIV and 42% of teenage girls are pregnant.
Zopher writes in his diary each day, reflecting on the consultations and the impact he has made. This is part of research being conducted on harmful gender norms and his ability to shift these among the young people he is working with through a Gender Transformative Approach.
Images above: Zopher walks to the Youth Centre, in Bondo, Kenya. Zopher cooking bananas for breakfast at his home in Bondo, Kenya. Zopher holding his two-month-old daughter outside of his home.
As a young boy in a family of seven, Zopher would help his parents by caring for the chickens, splitting firewood and burning charcoal. They were poor, but had basic food and shelter. Even at a young age, he always knew he wanted to help people and saw the impact a complete lack of sexual health information had on him and his peers. He pushed himself through high school and then university, where he led the first Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights campaign (ASRHR), ‘Let Us End Unsafe Abortion’. Since then, he’s been a full-time volunteer at the Youth Centre, while also caring for his own family.
These models are used at the centre to educate young people about their bodies and how they can protect themselves when engaging in sexual activities.
Talking about gender norms
We share ideas and discuss on various issues affecting us as youths and how we can come up with lasting solutions. We talk about gender norms and why they seem not to go away, but stick around generation after generation.
Young people open up about harmful gender norms during a training session: “A woman has to know when the child will be born, but it’s a man who decides when to impregnate.” “When a man wants to know his HIV status he sends his wife to go get tested.” “It’s only girls who are vulnerable to rape and not boys.” “Men are not supposed to seek medical attention when they have STIs or UTIs, because those are ‘women’s diseases’.” “Men should stay strong and are always right.”
We have evolving capacities, whereby it’s about individual development. A young person gradually develops the ability to take full responsibility for their own actions and decisions.
Zopher’s story is part of Get Up Speak Out, a five-year programme working to improve the (knowledge of) rights and sexual health of young people in seven countries. The programme is led by Rutgers and implemented in collaboration with: Aidsfonds; CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality; Dance4Life; IPPF; and, Simavi, as well as with six alliance partners in-country. The SRHR Alliance in Kenya is the country partner driving the implementation of this project. You can find more information about this programme here. (LINK VERANDEREN).