In Chigude, a usually quiet rural village in northern Malawi, young people gather around two tables laughing and chatting animatedly.
On one table, they are playing a traditional mancala board game Bawo. On the other, volunteers demonstrate putting a condom onto a wooden model penis. Though this is inevitably met with shouts and giggles, the largely male crowd watches intently.
“Most of them have come here for condoms, but I don’t just give them out,” says Kondwani, a 22-year-old Youth Action Movement (YAM) volunteer. “I ask them how do you use a condom? How is it useful to somebody who is using it?”
Committed to sharing knowledge with their peers
Activities like this in hard-to-reach areas are one of many that the Youth Action Movement delivers across Malawi. Trained and hosted by Youth Life Centres, which provide sexual and reproductive healthcare aimed at youth, the volunteers meet regularly and reach out to their peers in schools, universities, and on social media.
Phoebe, 22, is a YAM volunteer in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. “It’s hard for girls to speak out about sexual abuse because they fear the community will talk about them and blame them,” she explains, adding that a particular fear of being thrown out of their homes after opening up to their parents is one reason why girls are more comfortable opening up to their peers.
This is why trained volunteers like Phoebe are often approached by other young women who have been sexually assaulted. “When this happens, I speak to other YAM members about it and we decide what advice to give,” she says.
This will usually involve giving advice and sometimes going with young people to their local Youth Life Centre for STI testing and abortion counselling, as well as the hospital and the police, depending on the case.
“I tell girls they can decide what to do about their lives, their future and their bodies,” says Phoebe proudly, hanging out with her friends from YAM at Lilongwe Youth Life Centre.
Offering a range of care for youth communities
Chipiliro, the District Manager for Lilongwe, says that the centre focuses mainly on youth, as well as women and under-served communities. Their healthcare is integrated, meaning that “when a client comes in this room for one condition, they should also be able to claim our other services,” says Chipiliro.
He explains that this helps to “reduce stigma” as a client who is at the Youth Life Centre for one reason, for example to pick up condoms, can also then be offered other care that they might be less confident to ask for such as STI testing or abortion counselling.
Also, at the centre is Fane, a 33-year-old mother of three who has come to get the contraceptive pill. “I had the injection before but it had some bad side effects, so I wanted to change,” she explains.
Before Fane moved to Lilongwe, she says she had little understanding about contraceptive options and healthcare was difficult for her to reach from her remote village.
When she learned more about the different contraceptive methods available to her, she discussed them with her husband and has been using them ever since. “Family planning is very important because it relieves the anxiety I used to have before,” says Fane, remembering she used to avoid having sex with her husband for fear of getting pregnant.
“Now, I don’t have those anxieties and we’re having sex again like we used to!” She smiles, adding that the other major benefit of contraception has been spacing the ages of her children well. “This means I’m able to focus on my business selling mandazi (local donuts) and tomatoes.”