Peer educator Alfred Kunda stands in front of a group of seated young men, delivering an outdoor peer education session

Tackling sexual health taboos

Adolescent TALK! (Training and Local Knowledge)

Improving young people's sexual and reproductive health and rights in rural communities.

According to UNICEF, three in ten young Zambian women in rural areas aged 13-19 have begun childbearing, and are either already a mother or are currently pregnant with their first child. The rate of teenage pregnancy stands at 29%, with about 16,000 adolescent girls dropping out of school as a result of pregnancy.

In collaboration with partners including Planned Parenthood Association Zambia (PPAZ) and the Zambian Ministry of Health, our Adolescent TALK! (Training and Local Knowledge) project worked to challenge the root causes of such high rates of teenage pregnancy, including poverty, isolation from sexual and reproductive health services, and harmful traditional attitudes.

The TALK! project targeted almost 8,000 girls and boys in Zambia's rural Samfya District, ensuring they became better informed, empowered and equipped to make healthy decisions about their health.

7,949

We reached 7,949 girls and boys aged 10-19.

90

We recruited and trained 90 volunteer peer educators.

24/7

'Community-based distributors' enable people to access contraceptives 24 hours a day.

5

The project set up five youth-friendly corners in health centres.

Reaching the island

Amidst widespread teenage pregnancy and disease, watch how one community came together to tackle sexual health taboos.

Home to 2,000 people, Mbabala is a remote island in Zamia's immense Lake Bangweulu. There is just one primary school, and one health centre with a single nurse.

For most residents, poverty prevents them from reaching the mainland - and with it, the means to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services and contraceptive choices.

This lack of access to SRH information and services is exacerbated by cultural taboos around sex, and mistaken beliefs about health, such as that modern contraceptives cause cancer.

The Adolescent TALK! project worked with volunteers at all levels of the community, to bring about real and lasting change for the young people of Mbabala:

Building young people's knowledge and awareness

Volunteer Monica Atim sits outside with two teenage girls, a baby and a woman, discussing contraception
Volunteer Monica Atim discusses contraceptive options with 16-year-old Mary - already a mother herself, 14-year-old Veronica, and Veronica's mother Annie.

We recruited and trained 90 volunteer peer educators, equipping them with the knowledge and skills they needed to share vital SRH information with other young people in a safe and relatable way - for instance, through community outreach activities or sessions in the classroom.

Peer educators reached even more young people by presenting programmes on the local radio station, during which they would be joined by experts to discuss sexual health issues and answer questions from listeners.

By establishing youth-friendly corners in existing health centres - such as the one on Mbabala Island - we worked to provide young people with safe spaces to seek confidential advice and counselling on issues such as STIs, family planning, and the dangers of teenage pregnancy.

Tackling stigma around sexual health

By bringing on board highly-respected community elders and training them as voluntary 'change champions', we worked to challenge harmful existing attitudes towards sex and related health issues. Equipping older people - not just adolescents - with vital SRH information further addresses stigma and misconception around sexual health at the community level, helping to break the culture of silence and improving people's knowledge and understanding of SRH.

Increasing access to contraceptives and reducing unplanned pregnancies

Other elders became volunteer 'community-based distributors' - a discreet, safe and confidential way for local people to access condoms and other contraceptives, near to their homes, 24 hours a day.

Since the project began, rates of teenage pregnancies have significantly reduced - and, importantly, not a single girl dropped out of school due to pregnancy in 2019. Use of contraceptives has increased, with young people reporting enhanced knowledge and understanding of their sexual and reproductive health.

Providing best practice tools and information

Specialist volunteers worked in remote communities across the Samfya district, training community volunteers and peer educators, setting up youth-friendly corners at health centres, and creating invaluable resources.


Stories from the Adolescent TALK! project:

Alfred Kunda smiles and poses as he sits on the lake shore
VSO/Jason J Mulikita

I lost my parents to HIV - now I'm using my musical talents for good

After turning to drink to cope with losing his parents to HIV, musician Alfred Mwiza has got his life back on track – by using his creative skills to teach young people about safer sex.

Volunteer Monica Atim smiles as she sits outside
VSO/Jason J Mulikita

Monica vs sexual health stigma

Volunteer Monica Atim has spent the past three years making sure that young people in some of the most remote and marginalised communities of Zambia have access to essential sexual and reproductive health information and services.