This piece provides insights from the COVID-19 Youth Task Force on sustaining access to voluntary contraception and reproductive health information and care by youth in East Africa during the pandemic. Youth and adolescents need special consideration—while they are sometimes neglected, they increasingly make up a bulk of the population. This article articulates the important role of decision makers and technical advisors in enhancing access to voluntary reproductive health care by youth during COVID-19.
COVID-19 has brought new norms: social distancing, staying at home, and constantly sanitizing. It has been decades since such a pandemic happened globally. This is not only being felt by the health sector but also across the social, economic, and education sectors. COVID-19 is now a common term to many, including children and youth who are missing outdoor games and vibrant engagement with peers.
Youth is increasingly one of the largest cohorts in the current and projected demographic dividend. There are 1.2 billion young people globally, and it’s an opportune time to invest in them and let their voices be heard in order to realize health, economic, and social progress.
This COVID-19 era has affected seen many investments in health, including reproductive health (RH). As young people transition from adolescence to adulthood, their voluntary reproductive health care needs don’t diminish. Young people are cognizant that if COVID-19 isn’t addressed, we risk being affected by a second wave of the pandemic. This second wave will be due to the impact of COVID-19 on voluntary reproductive health care, including rising cases of unintended teenage pregnancies and early marriages among young people. In the last two months (April and May 2020), we have also witnessed increased cases of sexual and gender-based violence among all age cohorts as a result of reduced reproductive health priorities.
According to an opinion piece by DKT International, manufacturing companies across Asia and Europe where most contraceptives are produced have closed, and others are not operating at full capacity. This has not only affected their production, but shipping also, which has had a ripple in the supply chain system. The majority of youth-friendly centers are also closed in-country, and young people have had their reproductive health options limited.
In Uganda, public transport is restricted and most young people are locked in their homes, unable to access contraceptives. Tonny, a young family champion in Uganda, mentioned that voluntary reproductive health information and care are given less attention because all the focus is on COVID-19.
Young people stand to be counted during this crisis, and their meaningful engagement is key in addressing their reproductive health needs. As agents of change, they are taking their own initiative to respond to this pandemic.
Through the leadership of the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP), young people convened for a common of goal of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by establishing a global COVID-19 Youth Task Force. Being leaders and problem-solvers in their own way, youth have put in place mechanisms to ensure that access to and use of contraceptives and voluntary reproductive health care are sustained.
Insights from the IYAFP task force include the following:
In March 2020, IYAFP organized a digital Peer Support and Coffee Chat series to nurture a sense of community and peer-based mental health support across the organization’s networks. The first session was attended by over 40 youth who opened up about the issues they are personally facing related to the pandemic and the problems they’ve witnessed in their communities. The session resulted in the participants organizing the global COVID-19 Youth Task Force and a continued Peer Support and Coffee Chat series, which IYAFP now hosts on a bi-weekly basis to provide youth-centered support and community for youth across the world.
“Task force members are working with Jhpiego’s youth team to inform and co-design COVID-19 response materials that address the various needs young people are experiencing at this time. With Jhpiego’s support, IYAFP ambassadors’ experiences, insights, and ideas for solutions will be shared with the Nursing Now Campaign to explore ways that practical solutions could be implemented through partnerships between nurses and youth advocates.” — Victoria Watson, former IYAFP Executive Director
Young people from the East African Community are utilizing social media and SMS platforms to reach other youth with voluntary reproductive health information and care. For instance, youth in Uganda who work under the Population Reference Bureau- and IYAFP-led Empowering Evidence Driven Advocacy (EEDA) project created the Contraceptive Google Map Uganda Facebook page to help share information on family planning and COVID-19.
Bridget Kezaabu, one of EEDA’s advocacy associates, says, “We have also used our social media pages to send out reminders to people not to forget their contraceptive needs and to walk to the nearest open facility at least for services. We have also been sharing messages that can build mental strength and build hope in this time of COVID-19.” She also shared a personal family planning story.
Generation Guiders, a youth-led community-based organization in Western Kenya, has taken the lead in attending to the needs of rural adolescent girls by partnering with five other local organizations to develop an SMS platform for engaging girls and reaching them with contraceptive counselling and short-acting methods (pills and injectables). The girls that have subscribed to the Generation Guiders database and that of its partners engage in SMS conversations, after which the commodities are delivered to them.
Erick Omondi, the founder of Generation Guiders and a 120 Under 40 Winner, notes that COVID-19 does not only impact girls’ reproductive health, but also their social and economic well-being. To address this, he partnered with a charitable organization, Visa Oshwal, under the initiative We Rise by Lifting Others to receive donations on behalf of his vulnerable community. He distributed the donations to community members to help them overcome the economic strains they are facing due to COVID-19.
Currently, Generation Guiders is collaborating with the local county (sub-national level) referral hospital to provide long-acting and reversible contraceptives. However, this has been challenging due to stockouts and limited movement.
Social media not only enables young people to communicate and interact with their peers—it also serves as an information center for young people in Kenya. Alvin Mwangi, a renowned youth reproductive health advocate in Kenya, collected hotlines and contacts from all organizations serving voluntary reproductive health care for youth in Kenya, then shared this information in a Facebook post that has had a lot of impact over the past two months. Young people in Kenya are now accessing the services online through peer-to-peer referrals, and the post has been a contact database for youth in Kenya in this COVID-19 pandemic era.
“All learning institutions have been closed up due to COVID-19. Most adolescents and young people are at home and have so much free time. Online interaction is one of the best ways to interact and get immediate feedback. I decided to create a one-stop post with all the contact information that would be useful in this pandemic.” Alvin Mwangi, Youth RH Advocate, Kenya
In Tanzania, the Young & Alive Initiative, a non-governmental organization, has taken the digital space by storm and has been hosting Instagram Live sessions every Thursday and Friday since March 2020 to raise awareness about COVID-19. They co-host the sessions with experts from different sectors to unpack issues and address misinformation around COVID-19. According to Innocent Grant, a Program Officer at the organization, so far they have facilitated sessions on cross-cutting topics including youth journalism, violence against children, social and behavior change, female genital mutilation, mental health, gender-based violence, unplanned pregnancy, and voluntary contraception for youth. These engagements are essential for young people during lockdown.
Young people in Uganda are distributing condoms donated by UNFPA and delivering them door-to-door by use of motorcycles (commonly known as boda bodas) through an app called SafeBoda. UNFPA partners with the app owner and works with the youth leaders who link the SafeBoda motorists to the peer educators. The young people have also developed short messages and animated them into videos to make them more interactive. As they say, “Sex has no lockdown.”
Our world has never had so many young people before. How we respond to their voluntary reproductive health care needs today will greatly determine how we achieve health, economic, and social progress. Young people have untapped potential and are the drivers of the change we would all like to see. Invest in them: Let them participate meaningfully in governance and policymaking processes to sustain global development.
Young people are not only great thinkers and innovators, but also reliable partners; hearing and listening to them can go a long way towards securing the next generation of great leaders. As the global COVID-19 Youth Task Force demonstrates, youth are ready to step into this leadership.