Youth leader Nebiyu Ephirem, 26, has been staffing the phones at a hotline for young people who have questions about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) since it started in 2017 in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.
The helpline has two phones and is free, anonymous and open six days a week. The helpline is aimed at people aged 17-26 who are curious about SRH but are too shy or afraid to ask others about topics such as contraception, menstruation, and diseases.
The hotline also advises people dealing with emergencies following unprotected sex and issues such as unintended pregnancy and concerns over sexually transmitted infections (STIs), by referring people to their nearest clinic.
About 65 to 70 percent of the callers are female. Ephirem also trains other people about SRH and how to educate more young people about this.
Being on call for his community
“Most days, I get about 30 to 40 calls and on a Saturday, around 50.
People ask about contraceptive methods like pills and emergency contraceptives and depo provera [three-month injectable contraceptive], about the spread of STIs and HIV and how to prevent it, and about menstruation and sanitation.
I give my suggestions and then they come and use Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia (FGAE) services, or I refer people to clinics all over the country. There are seven FGAE clinics in this area and dozens of private clinics.
Young people need information about STIs before they come to the clinic, and when they want a service they can know where the clinics are. Most of them need information about menstruation and contraception.
They fear discussing this openly with family and due to religious beliefs, so people like to call me. Culturally, people used to not want to discuss sexual issues. We took the information from IPPF documents and translated them into the two local languages of Oromia and Amharic, with the help of university lecturers.
After four years, even the religious leaders did this training. We have trained university students, teachers and many more people to be trainers and 30 of them graduated. They [the people who dropped out] did not want to hear about the names in the local language of body parts. Most of the ones who stayed were boys and girls, but now we have women doing this.
[At first], they were laughing and said: ‘How could you talk like this? It’s shameful. But slowly, they became aware. They now talk to me, they discuss things with their parents, families, even teachers at school and friends.”
Lack of sex education
There is no sex education in Ethiopia’s national curriculum but youth groups and activists like Ephirem and his colleagues go into schools and teach people through school clubs.
“This year  up to June we trained 16,000 people and reached 517,725 adolescents and young people aged 10 to 24 through the helpline, social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – workshops, radio talk shows and libraries.”
A banner in Jimma town promotes the helpline and its number 8155, as does Jimma FM radio.
“The target for reaching people in school was 5,400. We achieved 11,658. The most effective way to reach people is at school. At the coffee plantation sites we reach a lot of people.”
The minimum family size around here is about five and the maximum we see is 10 to 12. In our culture, children are [considered as a sign of] wealth and people think they are blessed [if they have many].
When we go to schools to teach them, there are kids that already have kids. But after we teach them, they generally want to finish education and have kids at 20-25-years-old. We tell people they have to have kids related to the economy and to their incomes and we calculate the costs to feed and educate them.
I’m a volunteer here, so it’s mental satisfaction I get from doing this. I get 1000 Ethiopian Birr [roughly USD 30] per month for transport costs. I am also studying marketing at university and want to become a business consultant.”