Knowledge SUCCESS engages people working in family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) as Knowledge Management (KM) Champions to support and bolster the awareness and impact of project activities across East Africa. This spotlight series will focus on these valued KM champions and shed light on their journey to working in FP/RH. In today’s post, we spoke with Mercy Kipng’eny, a program assistant for SHE SOARS project at the Center for Study of Adolescence.
Editor’s note: The term “sexual reproductive health” is used throughout the interview and reflects the interviewee’s own words. In this post, it is synonymous with the term “sexual and reproductive health” which is also used within the FP/RH community.
“Conversations about sexual reproductive health, especially with parents and communities, is something I’ve struggled with. I think there are so many ways we can approach issues, speaking openly with parents on issues of sexual reproductive health.”
– Mercy Kipng’eny
For many young people, discussions around sexual reproductive health can be uncomfortable and taboo. Lack of access to accurate information and resources can lead to unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and gender-based violence. However, for some, like Mercy Kipng’eny, the journey toward advocating for sexual reproductive health rights started at a young age.
I joined Jaramogi University in Bondo in 2016, at the age of 17. Growing up in a traditional community, conversations around sexual reproductive health were not commonplace. I remember attending an open day at a youth center where they were teaching young people about sex and family planning. It was an eye-opening experience as I had never seen people talk about sex and sexuality so openly. I joined the youth center, and it was there that I learned about sexual reproductive health and the importance of youth empowerment.
“I joined the youth center in 2017. Whenever I would go home, I would look at my peers in my village and they were married off really early…So, that was really something which was motivating for me that we could, the generation of my peers and I, were the first people to actually start another cohort of young people completing their studies, going to university, and advancing their studies, especially for girls in the community, where people really just value marriage for girls and getting cows.”
My experience at the youth center motivated me to continue learning about sexual reproductive health. I was trained as a peer provider and received several trainings on advocacy. After completing my university studies, I worked as a case management officer for young people living with HIV. It was here that I got exposed to the programming world, and my supervisor encouraged me to take up monitoring and evaluation courses.
I later joined Population Services Kenya, where I worked as a young designer/innovation champion for the Adolescent 360 project. This position was a result of a fellowship with Ideo, where I was part of the Billion Girls Co-Lab Fellowship. The fellowship was about designing solutions for sexual and reproductive health for girls in our communities. We went through the entire human-centered design process, developed concepts, conducted research, and continued iterating and developing concepts, which were taken up by some community-based organizations.
Now, I work as a program assistant for SHE SOARS project at the Center for Study of Adolescence, where I continue advocating for adolescent sexual reproductive health and integrating a component of economic empowerment and working with the public sector.
However, navigating conversations about sexual reproductive health, especially with parents and communities, is still something I struggle with. Growing up, I never had such a conversation with my parents, even when I experienced my first menstrual cycle. It was my sisters who told me that it was normal and showed me how to use a pad. No one ever told me that having sex could lead to pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
Conversations about sexual reproductive health can be uncomfortable for many young people, but they are essential. Accurate information and access to resources are critical in preventing unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and gender-based violence. It is essential to provide platforms where young people can ask questions and learn about their sexual reproductive health.
In areas where access to sexual reproductive health resources is limited, interventions like intergenerational dialogues with adolescents and their mothers, and storytelling with parents, can be helpful. These interventions help break down barriers that prevent girls from accessing sexual reproductive health services. For example, girls may lack autonomy over their bodies because their husbands or mothers-in-law control them.
Interventions like these are essential in creating a safe space for young people to learn about sexual reproductive health. It is also critical to advocate for policies that promote sexual reproductive health rights and access to resources. Young people must be empowered to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. Mentorship is another important element in strengthening young people’s agency and confidence to make positive decisions about their sexual and reproductive health
In conclusion, my journey toward advocating for sexual reproductive health started at a young age and has been long and intentional. Along the way, I have built my skills through a lot of training, been exposed to different knowledge sources, and platforms, and made meaningful connections. Through my work, I have learned that conversations about sexual reproductive health are necessary, but they can be uncomfortable.