Any conversation with young people about safe sex, anywhere in the world, is likely to feature a group of sniggering boys asking you what the best positions are. That’s according to Sarah Meath, an ICS volunteer team leader and former Liverpool youth charity worker.
“Young people in the UK and in Zambia have exactly the same needs. The difference is that in Zambia they face poverty on a whole different scale”, says Sarah, 26.
In a country where more than half the population is under the age of 15, young people face high rates of forced sex, child marriage and rising HIV prevalence. At least 12 in every hundred people are HIV positive.
Youth take control of their sexual health
Young people are often at the greatest risk of these threats, but they’re also on the front line of fighting them. Teams of young Zambian and UK volunteers have been working on these issues in vulnerable communities since 2013.
Sarah first heard of ICS whilst working as youth worker with excluded groups in her Liverpool hometown and applied successfully to lead a team of young ICS volunteers in the township of Nyimba, Zambia.
She speaks proudly of the achievements of her team, which included setting up a facility for young people to get information about sexual health and rights:
“We wanted to create something that was by young people for young people, to create a space where you could speak to somebody closer to your age who you can have more of a conversation with.”
The project today is a success. Local young people, recruited and trained by ICS teams, offer information on sex and rights, signpost peers to access healthcare at the local hospital and do outreach work in local schools. The work continues today, even without ICS support.
The volunteers also worked hard to get into schools and deliver sessions on sexual health, which wasn’t easy in a place where religious and cultural taboos surround sex:
"Some schools only wanted us to teach abstinence, and not to do any condom demonstrations - but the dropout rate for young girls because of pregnancy is really high. And schools are telling you their pupils don’t have sex!”
In general, people were very supportive of the ICS volunteers, especially when they saw results, as Sarah explains:
“Kacholola Boarding school used to have quite a high drop-out rate. A few semesters of ICS working with them, and they only had one young woman drop out due to pregnancy. The principal actually said to me, ‘That’s through the work you’re doing. The sessions you do here really do have an impact, and we really want you back.’ That’s a great feeling”
The work is really important to Sarah, and the issues were brought home when she made close friendships with locals who were accessing exactly the services that ICS volunteers are improving access to.
“I knew a lot of young people who were orphaned from AIDS. It happens on a daily basis. I think I became a bit desensitised to it, because my host mother went to a funeral nearly every single week."
Sarah spent nine months in Zambia and loved her experience so much that after a short return home to see her family has just accepted a new posting as a team leader in a different community. She’s looking forward to the challenge:
“I’m ready to go back – I’m really cold! I want to see what kind of youth project we can do next that will really work.
“If you want to find your own path - while helping somebody else find theirs - and you’re ready for a bit of a challenge, you should think about ICS.”
Until now, although good practices and methodologies have existed across the volunteering sector, there has been no globally agreed set of standards. Together with the International Forum for Volunteering in Development, VSO has launched the Global Standard for Volunteering.
Volunteering is too often badly misunderstood. Too often, it is seen as a “worthy” activity undertaken by people with time on their hands. However, it really is a fundamental part of any country’s development journey and when done properly, it can be a powerful tool.
In 2017 Mike Barnes, an ex-primary school headteacher, joined VSO’s Unlocking Talent project in Malawi, providing students with tablet computers loaded with local language courses in numeracy and literacy. Read how he helped improve learning outcomes for thousands of children.