Learning self-love through peer education
UNICEF is helping youth in Rwanda to gain awareness on reproductive health to become responsible and mature adolescents
GATSIBO, EASTERN RWANDA – On a sunny and breezy day, Rita sits under a tree and recounts her journey as a teenage mother. “I have a very long story,” she starts with her eyes closed.
“I did not know that I was pregnant. But I felt nauseous and vomited whenever food was in front of me,” she says. Her mother noticed that something was wrong and took her to the health center for testing.
Rita became pregnant at the tender age of 18 years old.
“I was dismissed from the family as soon as they found out that I was carrying a baby,” Rita told me as she remembered the most difficult time of her life, her eyes fixed down on the grass. “I dropped out of school and called my aunt for help. Thankfully, I stayed with her until I gave birth,” she says with a sigh.
“The father of my child was my classmate who was 19 years old. When I told him about my pregnancy, he explained that he was too young to impregnate me,” Rita remembers with a burst of bitter laughter. To this day, he still denies that he is the father of the child.
After undergoing labor, Rita fell into a dilemma. “I was confused about my identity. I felt neither like a girl nor a woman.” That was when she met the peer volunteer in her community, Gilbert Ntigurirwa.
“At first, I did not trust the information Gilbert provided until I visited the youth corner at a nearby health center,” Rita says with a smile. She confirmed with the voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) nurse that the peer volunteers were offering credible education on reproductive health.
In 2020, UNICEF partnered with Society for Family Health (SFH) Rwanda to improve access to HIV services among young people aged 15-24 years in Gatsibo district. The project, called UBUZIMA BWIZA, ISHEMA RYANJYE, aims to reduce the rate of new HIV infections and pregnancies among girls and young women through peer education on reproductive health. Through peer volunteer support, youth in Rwanda gain more knowledge and confidence in addressing their needs for sexual and reproductive health and HIV prevention.
“Peer volunteers taught me to love myself and become a stronger person for me and my daughter.”
“Peer volunteers taught me to love myself and become a stronger person for me and my daughter,” she says, her voice filled with hope. The peer volunteers regularly visited Rita’s family and this helped her to become a more responsible and independent person. “I am so thankful that the peer volunteers helped me return to my family with my daughter,” she says.
Gilbert says that he wants to build a healthy village by teaching the youths on reproductive health as a peer volunteer. “Connecting with the youths in our village has been difficult due to misconceptions and rumors regarding pregnancy and HIV. I was often rejected from entering the households by the parents,” he says.
However, Gilbert was unfazed and continued knocking on doors with the goal of changing his community. “I am so thankful for UNICEF and SFH that they are supporting outreach activities for the community,” he says.
Gilbert also mentions that he is personally benefiting from the program. “I gained confidence to speak in the public and am being recognized by the community for my contribution. Most importantly, I am highly educated on reproductive health, which will help me throughout my life,” he says with a smile.
UNICEF, in partnership with SFH, implements community-based outreach activities to improve access to HIV testing and counseling for the hard-to-reach youths. In 2021, over 50,000 youths were reached with HIV prevention and gender-based violence messages. About 16,000 youths received HIV testing and counseling and roughly 50,000 condoms were distributed for free through HIV outreach activities.
The peer volunteers provide information on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS through community radio programs, door-to-door visits, and activities organized at district youth centers and in schools. Peer volunteers and youths interact through interpersonal communication during small group discussion sessions. Peer volunteers also sensitize their fellow youth to go for sexual and reproductive services and HIV testing at youth corners in health facilities, district youth centers, and community outreach sites.
“I actively participate in these programs and even took my younger sister to the youth corner. My only wish is that what happened to me never happens to my family and friends,” Rita concludes.