‘Link Up’ breaks taboos around sexual health in eastern Africa

Despite cultural challenges in Ethiopia, young people have teamed up to visit primary schools in a bid to create awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights among young adolescents as a response to HIV.

Despite cultural challenges in Ethiopia, young people have teamed up to visit primary schools in a bid to create awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights among young adolescents as a response to HIV.

The fact that cultural norms remain a barrier to sexual and reproductive health and rights among young people in some African countries was highlighted in a four-day regional review meeting of the Link Up project, held at the Fairview Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya from 9_13 May 2016. The meeting brought together young people from across eastern Africa to share their experiences in implementing the Link Up project.

“Speaking about sex is still a taboo in some African countries hence a hindrance to youth involvement in sexual health,” said Eyerusalem Emi Lemma, a Link Up youth activist from Ethiopia.

Emphasis on working with youth

Link Up aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights among young people most at risk from HIV in Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda, as well as two countries in Asia – Bangladesh and Mynamar.

A focus of the project is that young people must play an integral role in the HIV response since they account for up to five million of the global population of people living with HIV and around 2,400 new infections each day. This is about 40 per cent of all new HIV infections.

The meeting in Nairobi emphasised the critical role of integrating sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV. Participants called on policymakers to involve young people in reaching those most at risk and expressed concern that they had previously been left out of HIV responses.

“Before the Link Up project, in my country, the youths were never involved in strategic planning or implementation of programmes surrounding sexual and reproductive health and HIV,” said Lemma.

Her remarks were echoed by Jacquelyn Alesi, executive director of the United Network of Young People Living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA) in Uganda.  “It was not until the commencement of the Link Up project that the youth started getting involved. They are now meaningfully involved at the planning, research and implementation levels.”

New approach

To respond to the lack of youth involvement, Link Up is currently using a new approach dubbed Aiming High. This ensures holistic involvement of young people and can be applied by policymakers, programmers and civil society in sexual and reproductive health and HIV issues.

“Thanks to this approach, the youth in the countries implementing the Link Up project have been empowered and can now voice their views without fear of being looked down upon,” said Alesi.

The Link Up project interventions have also ensured better and more active involvement of young people in access to other HIV services like advocacy and HIV treatment services.

Positive impact

The presentations at the regional meeting showed that there have been significant changes in each of the countries with a Link Up project. Participants from Ethiopia, for instance, indicated that the young people are starting to move away from regarding sexual health as a taboo subject and are now creating awareness of HIV services through peer to peer support.

According to Cedric Nininahazwe, a youth activist from Burundi, young people are now able to design their own programmes and messaging activities that meet the needs of their peers. They are also able to implement them as effectively as non-youth-based organisations.

Greg Gray, Link Up project regional advisor in Myanmar and Bangladesh, said he was grateful for the work of young people involved in the Link Up project. “It is inspiring to see how the youths in different countries in the Link Up project have grown. Their hard work, dedication and passion are high,” he said.

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