The restrictive measures to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus have made it even more difficult for young people to access essential life-saving sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services, including comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and contraception; putting them at greater risk of teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortion, gender-based violence (GBV), sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.
While the lockdowns and other containment measures such as closure of schools and institutions of higher learning have curtailed CSE meetings with peer educators, IPPF’s Member Association in Kenya, Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK) has been able to continue providing CSE with minimum disruption through its well established WhatsApp mobile application. This has worked particularly well in Kenya which has over 95% mobile phone penetration – one of the highest in Africa – and where many young people have access to smart phones.
Besides, WhatsApp is the most popular mobile messaging application in Kenya for young people aged 13 to 24 years because it is affordable, accessible, and easy to use. During the lockdown period from April to end of May, FHOK reached 2,351 youth (1,321 young women and 1,030 young men) with accurate, age appropriate sexuality education and COVID-19 information using this platform, allowing them to not only make informed choices about their sexuality, but also increase their awareness on the COVID-19 pandemic and response.
FHOK has successfully used WhatsApp to reach in and out of school youth with CSE since 2016. The approach was started in the urban centres of Mombasa, Nakuru and Mombasa; and in 2018 was expanded to all FHOK’s 10 youth centres across the country. By the beginning of this year, FHOK had 102 trained and active facilitators, 85 active WhatsApp groups and had reached an estimated 13,105 youth in 2019. This approach is now even more crucial due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The facilitators use the FHOK facilitator guide, which is based on the IPPF CSE curriculum, to deliver structured sessions that covers topics including SRHR and HIV and AIDS; gender; GBV; relationships; youth friendly services; drugs and mental health; life skills; peer education; and advocacy. To ensure that the sessions, held once or twice a week for about two hours, are engaging and interesting, facilitators use e-posters, storytelling and short videos to spur discussions. The mobile platform also provides opportunities for psychosocial support for young people when needed and anonymity is assured for participants when necessary.
The facilitators also link participants, who may require additional SRH services, with service providers at an identified clinic or youth centre since FHOK clinics are still open. Supportive community systems and good working relationship with community gatekeepers have made it possible for young people to continue accessing CSE information and nondiscriminatory SRH services during the COVID-19 crisis.