"My name is Aarati Patel. My age is 22 years old. I’m a National Volunteer from VSO, I’m working as Adolescence and youth health coordinator, in 4 municipalities in Rautahat, Nepal. This is my first experience and first step in development sector.
Strengthening youth and adolescent health access and rights (SYAHAAR)
I am working under VSO’s SYAHAAR Project whose donor, funder is from UK aid. We have mainly focused on adolescence through a holistic approach, using health services and how to access them. This SYAHAAR project is trying to care in continuum and in Nepali the word for care is “syahaar”. From adolescence to a mother’s pregnancy, it's important to identify that health is a life cycle.
The reason we focus on youth is because later in life, the youth are going to be parents. If we give them knowledge regarding health from now, they will become better mothers and fathers and can improve the health of their children.
In the adolescent phase, youth are vulnerable as they go through many changes, yet the government and doesn't put as much investment into youth. There are programs for safe motherhood, but for adolescents there is no separate platform to address their issues. The SYAHAAR project is trying to connect with youth to help deal with their problems and build a network throughout the nation to help make their health problems visible.
My role as a volunteer
As national volunteers, we work on individual and community level. We have a network of youth health champions (YHCs). We appoint two such YHCs every month and have 20 YHCs so far. They mentor the local youths of their communities and we train them to develop their skills so their able to advocate for their rights and raise their voice.
On a community level, we identify social harmful norms that affect reproductive health and work to advocate against it. We check-up on antenatal and postnatal mothers by visiting houses. Similarly, from system level, we’re trying to strengthen the services. We assess services using a Community Score Card (CSC) and use it them for advocacy.
At a policy level, we do policy assessments. At first, we assess what scenario is, prioritise the need focusing on health then plan further events and activities accordingly. This area Rautahat is prone to many types of vulnerability, Gaur is vulnerable due to floods, and storms, even crime is high. People are quite illiterate here.
The challenges young people face in realising their rights to family planning
In Rautahat, in comparison to other districts, the reproductive health indicators are very low. Child marriage, early marriage and dowry has affected reproductive health. Similarly disasters, floods and storms and landslides are very common. This is why we are focusing on this area, because of the many risks, and its vulnerability. This disrupts health services a lot, and young people are left behind.
When we first came, local youths, teenagers attending sessions would feel shy and hesitant to talk about it. They wouldn’t want to talk. Boys and girls wouldn’t want to sit together and sat separately. We couldn’t even mention the word “sex” in front of them. Even when menstruation takes place, they wouldn’t want to talk about it, they’d be quiet. They’d laugh, not talk and leave the session. When we were discussing these things with the children, the parents would blame us for being bad influence towards their children.
How SYAHAAR is changing attitudes
We worked with young people, gave them booklets and materials and educated them. We visited the families and explained what we are teaching their children and why. Now it has become very easy, even to talk about reproductive health, and they are the one to ask us questions. The teenagers come and sit together now. They are open and it is the same ones who were uncomfortable to talk about these things before that are now teaching it to the others. Similarly, the YHCs who have been developing leadership skills and can raise their voices, we have been helping them find jobs and opportunities. After SYAHAAR project mentored and local youths, we can see much increase in their hospital visits, we can see this through scale and reach.
Our YHCs have experienced a lot of change in themselves, they have gained knowledge and can speak for themselves. Example, one of our YHCs was 18 years old and was about to get married. She trusted us and shared how she is not interested to be married yet but was being forced by her family. We visited her house and counselled her family. Now her marriage is cancelled until she comes of age. Her family say that they won’t wed her for two years, when she’ll turn 20. They had already planned out the date but now it’s cancelled.
In communities where we work, we have found a lot of changes from individual level to system level. We did a Community Score Card (CSC) event where both the sides: service provider and users were called in to provide a common scoring. Now, they have become focused on planning for their future.
Working with women and the LGBTQ+ community
I find that women trust me easily and are open with me. When we go and talk to them, they are very positive, but before, they didn’t want to talk to us. Now after working with them, they are improving, we can notice changes. They say, 'if you support us then we’ll jointly decline dowry.'
We have been trying to make things inclusive and we talk to people from LGBTQ+ communities to discuss, identify and address problems in their reproductive health. We have hosted focus group discussions with LGBTIQ+ and people invited them to our events. We discuss their situation and try to understand how difficult it is for them to access services, then advocate for to help health services understand their needs.
Why I volunteer with VSO
I work with volunteers from different sectors to bring change in our community can bring a new perspective. I wanted to gain experience as a volunteer in my community, so I thought VSO is the right place.
Blended volunteerism is quite unique and different than other organisations. I’m work as a national volunteer then I have community volunteers under me, and under them community volunteers, we have our government assigned female community health volunteers. From here, we link work together to bring unique knowledge and share problems with each other and have a suitable platform to do it.
When I was a child, I was interested to bring change in my village, where issues like child marriage and dowry persisted. I feel like volunteering though VSO has helped make my dream come true. When I work as a volunteer, people from my community get to know me, understand me and respect me. They become familiar and share their thoughts, so we can build trust between us.
I’m from medical background, so I had experience of counselling at clinics and hospitals, but I was never made to talk in front of crowd like I’m doing now, and I wasn’t confident. Now I work at system and policy levels, interacting with mayors and vice mayors.
I’ve developed leadership qualities and feel confident to communicate with important people, and can handle a large crowd. My personal capacity has improved, I didn’t have IT knowledge and now I do. This has hugely helped my personal development.
What inspires me to keep going
When I see improvement or when someone praises our work, I feel motivated. Seeing changes and improvement we can make to other peoples lives makes me feel good and it keeps me going. I feel that if I continue doing this, I will change many lives in the future.
I’m motivated by how I can change a person’s perception and thinking. My favourite thing as a national volunteer is to be able to go to the community and sit together to listen to the problems of the youth and discuss with them.
Although I’m a youth myself, hearing the problems of youth from Rautahat district is interesting. In the future, I want to work in the community as a role model. Even if we leave, the improvements that we brought will persist.
Want to hear more from Aarati?
This week, Aarati is taking over our @VSOPeople account on Twitter from 2nd-13th of November 2022 to share how she's championing youth health rights in the run up to the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP), taking place from the 14th-17th November.
Listen to Aarati talk about her experience of blended volunteering
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