By Carol Gatura, Communications Officer, APHRC
Youth living in urban informal settlements face numerous challenges when it comes to accessing sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services. Comprehensive sexuality education is hardly being taught in schools, and parents are not quite sure how to talk about sex with their children.
As part of our work on the USAID-funded African Strategies for Health project – a multi-year initiative in collaboration with Management Sciences for Health that examined barriers to access to reproductive health services in urban and peri-urban contexts across the continent – the African Population and Health Research Center produced a short film based in the Nairobi slums of Viwandani and Korogocho.
The film followed a young mother from Viwandani and a health worker in Korogocho and explored some of the ways youth in urban slums are finding solutions to the problems of early pregnancy, accessing facilities that aren’t geared to youth, and the difficulty in finding straight answers to questions about sexuality and reproductive health.
We wanted to see if we captured the realities of the communities so we went back to listen. More than 100 parents, teachers and young people themselves came to watch the film and then join an informal discussion: a format that one mother said after the Viwandani screening gave her new ideas for how to talk to her teenagers at home about a topic that can be equal parts embarassing, uncomfortable and full of misinformation.
The discussions, which were moderated by APHRC’s partners in the two communities – U-Tena in Viwandani and Miss Koch in Korogocho – were lively, honest, respectful and solutions-oriented, drawing on experiences and lessons, highlighting the way of life in these slums.
Things are improving, according to many of the young people, both male and female, who say they find it easier to find family planning and to see health care providers. But some facilities are better than others, and some providers are more sympathetic and easier to talk to. Plus, the cost of the longer-acting methods of contraception remains out of reach for many.
The disconnect between availability and desirability is wide. Free services and free supplies are offered through outreach sessions at churches or schools: the exact wrong place for reaching the young people most in need of those supplies. Short-term contraceptive methods, like condoms and pills, need to be more readily available in hard-to-reach parts of the slums. In Korogocho, the idea of a youth center, where young people can gather after school, which hosts a small clinic or space for sexual and reproductive health counseling, was mentioned repeatedly and wistfully by many participants.
For the teachers who attended the screening, it was not so much the lack of interest in teaching life skills: on the contrary. How they might fit the soft skills into a day packed with classes subject to rigorous examination – and when they could find the time to develop another set of teaching materials – represents a major challenge. Some teachers try their best to mentor students outside of the classroom, and provide answers to questions about sexuality – even if they don’t consider this to be part of their jobs. Instead, many say, they feel that parents are abdicating their own responsibilities for teaching their children about sex. Meanwhile parents are worried they don’t have the tools and knowledge to be an authoritative voice about sexuality.
Parents need to stop spreading the abstinence gospel and be real with us about sex, one young girl from Korogocho said. The need for real talk on menstrual knowledge, reproductive health and sex from parents was reiterated.
It was clear from the brief discussions, then, that bringing parents and teachers together to develop a common strategy or language could be one effective way to reach young people with straight, age-appropriate talk about sexual education. Rather than have children pick up rice grains outside when their parents are having sex.