Teen Clubs - Taking Steps Towards Tomorrow

Strengthening integrated Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)/HIV and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV)

By Karen Schermbrucker
Prisca,16, (yellow T-shirt) the youth group leader and 19-year-old Meria, the adolescent champion (white t-shirt) enjoy a game together during one of their Teen Club meetings
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
04 November 2020

Malawi has a population of 19.7 million people with a median age of 17 years (United Nations, 2019). Malawi’s HIV prevalence is one of the highest in the world, with 9.2 per cent of the adult population aged between 15-49 living with HIV.  Adolescents living with HIV (ALHIV) are especially vulnerable as they have to manage their illness and cope with mental development, physical change and HIV-stigmas in communities.

If someone at school contracts HIV, it is very likely they will stop going to school for fear of being mocked or ridiculed. But through the Teen Group, we have been taught the benefit of testing. There are 40 members in our group - 30 of them now know their status.” – Meria, 19

Meria, 19 - the adolescent champion leads a discussion during one of the Teen Club meetings in Mulanje, Malawi ©UNICEFMalawi/2019/Schermbrucker
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
Meria, 19 - the adolescent champion leads a discussion during one of the Teen Club meetings in Mulanje, Malawi ©UNICEFMalawi/2019/Schermbrucker

The Teen Club model was set up to provide a forum for adolescents to work through the challenges associated with HIV with the support of trained health and social workers. For many, the network creates a peer network of ALHIV (adolescents living with HIV).  Their main mission is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for adolescents in which they can build supportive relationships, increase their self-esteem and develop and reinforce good habits such as taking the first step in testing for HIV.

16-year-old Prisca, the bright future youth group leader of the Teen Club in Mulanje
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
16-year-old Prisca, the bright future youth group leader of the Teen Club in Mulanje

UNICEF plays an active role in working with the Teen Club model. Through UNICEF, the teen clubs are operational in several districts across the country including, Mulanje.

“Our teen group started in 2017 with a mentor mother coming to visit us. During the sessions, we discuss topics such as family planning and the importance of testing for HIV. This training has helped us a lot. Before the group started, none of us realized how important testing for HIV was.” – Prisca, 16.

Mulanje District Hospital, Mulanje Malawi
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
Mulanje District Hospital, Mulanje Malawi

One of the many challenges ALHIV (Adolescents living with HIV) experience is sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This is still a major concern in Malawi. Recent research indicates that in 2016, an estimated 34 per cent of women aged 15-49 experienced physical violence, while 21 per cent have experienced sexual violence (MSH, 2018). Under 2gether 4 SRHR, a Joint UN programme funded by the Government of Sweden, UNICEF is supporting Teen Clubs to integrate SGBV into their services.

“The training has taught me more about family planning and abuse. The group also helps those who are being subjected to abuse. Now I am able to explain to people what abuse is about and what to do.” – Caroline (member of the teen group)

The examination room at the One-Stop-Centre
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
The examination room at the One-Stop-Centre

According to Dr Morris (clinical officer at the Mulanje District Hospital), the majority of victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Mulanje are females aged 4-16 years old. He says, “One of the greatest contributors towards the high prevalence of SGBV is cultural beliefs, such as having sex with a child will cure you of HIV, and a general lack of knowledge within the community that what they are doing is wrong.”

“My focus here as a community leader is to take these cases into the community and have the whole prosecution take place there. This is the best way to sensitise people in the community that what they are doing is wrong.  Things will change with a good approach, but change needs to come from within the community.” - Dr Morris

Partners of the SRH/SGBV/HIV (Sexual and Reproductive Health/ Sexual Gender-based violence) project meet at the Mulanje hospital to ensure perpetrators of gender-based violence are convicted, and victims are helped
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
Partners of the SRH/SGBV/HIV (Sexual and Reproductive Health/ Sexual Gender-based violence) project meet at the Mulanje hospital to ensure perpetrators of gender-based violence are convicted, and victims are helped

In order to address the high number of SGBV cases in Malawi, Baylor, with support from UNICEF implemented the Sexual and Reproductive Health/ Sexual Gender-based violence project. The project has seen key role players from government departments and civil society’s institutions coming together to learn to understand the concept of integrated Sexual Gender-Based Violence and how it is interconnected to HIV.

The result has been regular meetings between the Ministry of Health, the DHO (District Health officer) and hospital staff, Ministry of Gender, Social Welfare, the Judiciary and the Police service. These meetings have helped coordinate the management of SGBV cases in the district, especially those involving adolescents and minors. In addition to the meetings, a One-Stop-Centre has also been built on the hospital grounds for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

The Mulanje District Hospital One-Stop centre, set up by UNICEF to help victims immediately after they have experienced sexual or gender-based violence
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
The Mulanje District Hospital One-Stop centre, set up by UNICEF to help victims immediately after they have experienced sexual or gender-based violence

The One-Stop-Centre has been operating since July 2017 and is successfully delivering medical, social welfare and police services at one place. This has resulted in an increasing number of children, adolescents and women coming out to access the services after suffering gender-based violence, including sexual abuse in their communities.

”The benefit of the One-Stop-Centre for survivors of GBV is that they are able to access all services - from social, to medical and police in one place. Before the One-Stop-Centre cases of sexual violence could take over two years to go to court. But now it takes less than one month.”  - Dr Morris

Teenage girls  enjoying a moment at the teen club in Mulanje, Malawi
UNICEF Malawi/2019/Schermbrucker
Teenage girls enjoying a moment at the teen club in Mulanje, Malawi

According to UNAIDS, HIV incidence is starting to decline in many of the most severely affected countries because adolescents and young people are adopting safer sexual practices. However, in regions with available data, recent testing coverage remains below 20 per cent for adolescents. The expansion and implementation of safe and nurturing environments for adolescents like these teen clubs will hopefully result in supportive relationships and help to increase their self-esteem and the courage to start taking the first step in testing for HIV.

I urge my fellow youth living with HIV to never look down on yourself.  Be resilient, discover your potential and live positively,” - words of a graduate from one of the Baylor Teen Clubs in Malawi.