Meet some of the amazing young people working to improve sexual and reproductive health on college campuses in Western Kenya

The highlight of this week was co-facilitating focus groups with Youth Champions in charge of implementing the Ipas Africa Alliance’s Choice for Change (C4C) project at two universities in Eastern Kenya on what resources they think young people need to care for their sexual and reproductive health and live their best lives. This was an activity to inform a webage that the Alliance is designing, which will link to their Nimechanuka Facebook and Twitter feeds (Nimechanuka, I am told, means “I am enlightened/empowered” in Kiswahili).

Spending time with these awesome young people reminded me of how much I miss working directly with youth, how much I love sex ed, and how full of hope and amazing ideas so many of them are. There were also several hilarious moments like when we we talked about the fear that sooo many young people have that the natural size and shape of their genitalia are abnormal. This is apparently a global concern for young folks since the youth I worked with in North Carolina and Georgia were equally worried. ALL OF YA’ PARTS ARE NORMAL. lol We had a good laugh.

After the focus groups were over, I had the honor of sitting down with two of the brilliant Youth Champions one-on-one to talk about their work to refer young women on their campuses for contraception. They had a lot to say about the work and what motivates them, and how the training and support they’ve received from the Ipas Africa Alliance has changed the way they view themselves and the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights. They’ve generously given me permission to share their feedback and photos.

Meet Morra*. Don’t let her small stature fool you- she’s is on fire for reproductive health and rights! She’s also got great style, so we clearly hit it off! 🙂 Here’s what she had to say about her work with Ipas during our interview this week:

Moraa Youth Champion
Morra is a junior at Maseno University, majoring in Medical Biotechnology. She hopes to conduct research that will cure diseases. For now, she’s leads efforts to fulfill students’ right to reproductive health information and services.

“They (other young women) tell me they admire my confidence and I tell them they too need to be confident. It’s important in our society where the feminine gender is considered inferior.”

What impact has the Choice for Change (C4C) program had on young people in your community?

“Through this program, youth have been able to learn facts about contraceptives. You know there’s been so much fiction and in fact, (before) if you ask a lady why she can’t go for contraceptives, people surely will tell you that, “You know, I would grow fat, I would grow thin, I would lose my shape.” But now… they are able to get the facts on importance and effects of contraceptives. And they have been able to access contraceptives in the right place from the health practitioners… They’re first advised by the health practitioner, they’re given a variety (of options) so you make a decision, an informed decision.”

What has your experience been like working with Ipas to implement C4C?

“When I first started this I was green. But you see I have gained a lot of information. Initially I was afraid of talking about contraceptives, but now I’m courageous. I can teach people. In fact, I have really gained knowledge. I have also been able to convince some other people. I have advised them on the right way to make informed decisions.”

How has the program changed you?

“Initially, I wouldn’t advise somebody to go for contraception. The only thing I knew was you would bleed. But now I know it is not that bleeding like I thought. That bleeding is just for a short time before the body gets to be compatible with the new substance that has been introduced into the body. So it changed by perception about contraceptives and in that way, I’ve also helped change other people’s perceptions who thought the same as me. They (other young women) tell me they admire my confidence and I tell them they too need to be confident. It’s important in our society where the feminine gender is considered inferior.”

What motivates you do refer other young people for contraception?

“I was born out of wedlock. Because one, my mom wasn’t informed about contraceptives… She was the only bread winner. She told me my father left before I was born. So, at least I can help a few.”

“There’s (also) a number of drop outs on my (campus)…. I just want to reach out to any people so that they can make informed decisions. Prevent the unplanned pregnancies, the STIs, the HIV, and children who are born out of wedlock.”

How do you feel when you refer other young people for contraception?

“The feeling is incredible. I just can’t get a suitable word. But it makes me smile knowing that I have achieved my objectives (sensitization and referral). Helping the youth, especially ladies, make informed choices is just my happiness.”

If only we were all this wise in college! Can we please give this woman a standing ovation? ❤

The other young person I had the honor of talking to this week was Cleophas. Here’s a photo of him breaking down the importance of safe sex and contraception for his peers during the focus group,* and what he had to say about his work with Ipas:

Cleophas2
Cleophas is a senior at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST) studying public health and serving his fellow students with compassionate ear as well as reproductive health information and referrals.

“I’ve had the chance to change the lives of those other innocent students, because we have had cases of students who are procuring unsafe abortion before, but now they are able to access contraceptives so that they do not reach to that stage of unsafe abortion.”

Tell me about your work with the Ipas Choice for Change (C4C) program.

“What I do normally, I reach out to students. I attend to so many students. I do counseling, peer education…. I also do referrals to the link students to health centers that Ipas is working with. So these are just the kind of groups we are referring students to. I also do a lot of phone calls to attend to students. I do one-on-one chats. We do chats on social media. At times I even stay awake, like, throughout the night because students just keep on asking me questions.”

How confident do you feel answering the questions students ask?

“At first I didn’t feel that confident because my experience with Ipas has been gradual. It has not been so immediate that way, because the research, at first I was a bit naïve talking about matters concerning sexuality, but through the training, capacity building, networking and advocacy trainings that we were taken through, I was able to gain that confidence and I’m able to counsel and offer guidance.”

What has your experience been like working with Ipas to implement C4C?

“It has been extremely positive working for C4C as a champion, I am reaching (out) to other students and changing even my life as an individual… I know much on contraceptives and I’ve had the chance to change the lives of those other innocent students, because we have had cases of students who are procuring unsafe abortion before, but now they are able to access contraceptives so that they do not reach the stage of unsafe abortion.”

How beneficial has C4C been to your community?

“It has been extremely beneficial because since the time I came here the lives has just changed. People have just changed with Ipas…When I came here back in 2014, there was a lot of pregnant women in the community. People even branded the university… like a maternity (ward)… So, you know, that time so many students were pregnant but within a short while this pregnancy just disappears. So, it never disappeared in a positive way, you know in a good way, but people are procuring unsafe abortion. But now through the information Ipas has impacted students, and you know even when I walk along the corridors of JOOUST, there is a name a lot of students have branded me, they do call me “Ipas.” Because when they see me they see hope… When they see me, they see a solution to reproductive health (problems).”

Aren’t they AMAZING?! If there’s hope for the world, it rests on our willingness to invest in youth like Morra and Cleophas.

*Both Morra and Cleophas gave written permission to be interviewed and for their photos and names to be shared.

A follow-up to my last post…

Since arriving in Kisumu last Sunday, I’ve met some amazing staff at the Kisumu Africa Alliance Office. They’ve been incredibly kind to me, insisting that I “take tea” with them, introducing me to their delicious pilau rice and teaching me some very helpful Kiswahili phrases, like habari za asubuhi (good morning) and habari yako (how are you).

On Monday, a younger staff member around my same age invited me to visit her friend who had just given birth. I didn’t want to intrude on the visit, but she insisted that she wanted me to come along. Just three days old, her friend’s baby girl was so sweet, with chubby little cheeks tucked under a little hat with a baby giraffe on the front, and I had fun entertaining her two-year-old brother as the adults chatted.

On the way back from the visit, I thanked my new co-worker for inviting me along, and we got to talking about how precious the baby is and how we both want to be mothers one day. We also laughed about how we also treasure our sleep and freedom, and how drastically motherhood would impact those things. Then she said, “It’s also that pregnancy is dangerous here you know? Even at the hospitals, sometimes they can’t save you. Many women die.” Her words made my chest ache and were a testament to the perverse amount of privilege I carry. This talented woman, formally educated, well-traveled and doing quite well by Kenyan economic standards, had to factor-in to her decisions about childbearing a maternal mortality rate 13 times that of the U.S.

This is why I am proud, every day, of the work my Ipas colleagues do to reduce maternal mortality and advocate for women’s dignity no matter her reproductive choices. That’s part of what reproductive justice is about after all- freedom and dignity when exercising one’s reproductive rights. The Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, a U.S.-based network of individuals and organizations that works to improve institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities, provides a more complete definition:

“Reproductive Justice is the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

I believe we can and must work diligently to demand, defend and uplift reproductive justice, within our own communities and as allies to the communities of all women and their families. Don’t you?