Promoting sexual health awareness in teenagers

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    Teenage girls in Kenya often lack access to sexual and reproductive health services, many unaware that such services even exist. Not knowing where to turn for reliable information about their bodies and their rights, some young women find themselves dropping out of school — marrying early, having babies — while others endure the trauma of sexual assault or risky abortions.

    The Global Childhood Report 2019 published by Save the Children ranked Kenya the third highest in East and Central Africa with 82 births per 1,000 girls aged 15–19. One in every six teenage girls in Kenya is pregnant or is already a mother.

    Now, three young women, all Mastercard Foundation Scholars, are teaming up on a social venture that will address this information gap and provide teenage girls with the resources they need to make informed decisions. Grace Nkatha Kiruja and Prudence Akoth Hainga from Kenya, along with Martine Irakonze from Burundi, are second-year students at the University of Edinburgh studying agricultural science, political science, and international relations and international marketing, respectively. They have named their venture Linda, which means “protect” in Swahili.

    Linda is a student-led social enterprise that aims to create awareness around sexual health-related issues by providing accurate and locally relevant information to young people in Africa. It does this in two ways: through school and community outreach and through a confidential and private text messaging service.

    The team is also pushing for collective and sustainable solutions that address the challenges youth face in terms of sexual and reproductive health issues, by removing the fear of asking questions or discussing their concerns with adults.

    The team will partner with Inuka Success Youth Group to lead outreach efforts. Located in Kisumu, Kenya, volunteers will carry out four visits each month throughout the school year to different schools in the region.

    “During these visits, students will be engaged in conference-style discussions on matters concerning sexual and reproductive health,” elaborated Prudence. “Volunteers will also introduce the text messaging platform and engage in one-on-one conversations with those requiring more personalized support.”

    A summary of the issues facing the students will be shared with the schools’ guidance and counselling offices anonymously. With the consent of the victim, serious cases will be referred to the hospital or another institution. 

    The text message platform uses a simple short code system. The student sends a text with the word Linda to 21600, which is already operational, to subscribe. This grants her access to ask a question, read a testimony, or share one.

    A trained professional on the other end of the line will respond within an hour. If an emergency, the case will be referred to a doctor working with Inuka Success Youth Group, who will handle the necessary referrals. The system is private and anonymous, meaning the student’s identity is protected.

    The system is meant to be an avenue for students to access safe and relevant information and health services to which their access may have otherwise been hindered or denied. 

    “Right now, we are targeting teenagers between 12 and 19 years old in Kisumu County. Eventually, we hope to cover other counties with high rates of teenage pregnancies, and eventually Kenya as a whole,” said Prudence. “We are focusing on targeting a region because a huge number of young people affected by these issues are out of school and we don’t want to limit the project to just school-going teenagers.”

    Users will be charged a nominal fee for sending a text message in Kenya, one Kenyan shilling. For students without a mobile phone, Linda plans to start a magazine which will include a section with frequently asked questions and answers. “Through the magazine, stakeholders will realize the importance of creating space for young people to communicate about matters of sexual and reproductive health,” said Martine.

    Linda won the 2019 Resolution Social Venture Challenge, a competition that rewards compelling leadership and promising social ventures led by youth. These young leaders and change-makers earned a fellowship that includes seed funding, mentorship, and access to a network of young global change-makers to pursue impactful projects in their communities. A collaboration between the Mastercard Foundation and The Resolution Project, the Resolution Social Venture Challenge provides a pathway to action for socially responsible young leaders who want to create change that matters in their communities.

    “As a winner of the 2019 SVC, we feel energized about the next steps. Linda is like our baby and we presented it to the people around us with pride and love. We were not pitching an idea — we were telling a story that had resulted from our own personal experiences, from experiences that those close to us had gone through,” said Grace. “Therefore, a message for my fellow African youth is to be bold enough to start making a change in areas they are passionate about. There will never be a better time to make the jump.”

    By Pius Sawa Murefu