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Dorcas Agalo, Respekt

I am a finalist medical student in Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.
During my free time, I work with a group of volunteers composed of medical and public health students in a project called RESPEKT (Reproductive and Sexual Health Program for Kenyan Teenagers). This is a partnership project between Medical Students’ Association of Kenya (MSAKE) and International Medical Co-operation Committee Uland (IMCC-Uland). The project started to develop in 2014, and by 2015 volunteers from both MSAKE and IMCC met to brainstorm; that was when RESPEKT was born. 

Our goal is to ensure quality education on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) among teenagers aged 13-19 years in Kenya by facilitating a series of workshops at undeserved secondary schools in five different Kenyan counties. The project applies a rights-based approach to combat the harmful cultural practices, gender-based violence and lack of relevant and accurate information on SRHR among youth in Kenya. 

In Kenya, young boys and girls are unable to access sexual and reproductive health services despite of their right to do so as entrenched in the Kenyan constitution. Young women and children continue to suffer in the hands of health-care practitioners and quacks who claim that female genital mutilation done in the hospital is safer than that done in traditional settings. Unmet sexual and reproductive health needs among the youth contribute to unwanted pregnancies, STIs and HIV infections. Teenage pregnancies are associated with adverse outcomes such as unsafe abortion, obstructed labour, fistulas and death. 

 Efforts to address these issues have been made by the national government, through the creation of the Adolescent Reproductive Health and Development Policy in 2003 aimed at improving reproductive health and the quality of life among Kenyan adolescents and youth. However, the drive to secure adequate awareness and education on SRHR has faced a range of cultural and religious opposition. 

Accommodating these challenges, we seek to provide quality education on sexual and reproductive health and rights through a series of workshops that emphasize the creation of safe spaces. A safe space is a non-judgemental and friendly environment where we can have open discussions and our opinions are respected. Through the project we have been able to address issues of menstrual hygiene; harmful cultural practices like female genital mutilation; the importance of safe sex practices and abstinence when possible; and early or unplanned pregnancy. Creating safe spaces has made students feel comfortable and enthusiastic in leading discussions. One girl remarked after a session on early pregnancy, “I was like a blind person before you came to our school but now I see clearly”. 

Issues surrounding sexuality and reproductive health are difficult to talk about with our parents and teachers because it is largely considered taboo. Young boys and girls are therefore more receptive to us compared to older people, and we take advantage of this to impact youth one at a time. Our long term goal is to raise a generation of young women and men who will take charge of their health and secure the right to health for all around them. The workshops have also given us an opportunity to mentor and encourage young boys and girls in school to strive towards making it to college and a better life. 

If you’d like to learn more about our work, or see how to get involved, please visit us on Facebook and share our efforts across your networks.