I recently had a chance to visit an inspiring youth club in Mombasa, Kenya. Supported by DSW, The Alpha and Omega Club forms part of a wider network of clubs in the region. Clubs are engaged in a range of reproductive health services and activities including community outreaches, sexually transmitted infection treatment, and family planning counselling. As I listened to stories of incredible volunteer work and successes in the community, I suddenly became very interested in finding out their motivation for doing the work they do. The question was met with some surprise.
“The reason why we do this work is because we have to”. This was met by a chorus of nodding heads. As it turned out, most of the youth workers had been touched by or had witnessed some kind of personal tragedy in their lives. One of the speakers had lost her father to AIDS. Others had witnessed young mothers dying during childbirth.
Unfortunately, these experiences are not limited to that small community in the Mombasa slums. According to UNICEF, about 2.7 million people aged 15 to 24 in Eastern and Southern Africa live with HIV — more than half of all HIV-positive young people globally. This is worrying news considering that the majority of HIV infections are sexually transmitted or are associated with pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. And that is assuming a woman conceives safely. In South Africa today, HIV infection is cited as one of the leading contributors to maternal mortality.
Although this sounds depressing, movements are taking place to bring change.
Over the past ten years, product development partnerships (PDPs), such as IAVI, IPM, and multilateral institutions such as the Global Fund, have been changing the landscape with regards to the development of solutions for HIV and other diseases.
Because HIV and poor sexual and reproductive health share the same root causes such as poverty and gender inequality, a wide range of research initiatives now directly addresses maternal health and family planning. These include breakthroughs regarding new female condoms and other modern contraceptives such as implants and the patch. These initiatives not only help save lives, they also promote gender empowerment as they give girls and women more control and choice when it comes to their sexual health. With new products in the development pipeline such as the Pericoital (aka ‘on-demand’) Pill, and a Dual-Purpose Vaginal Ring able to protect against HIV and prevent unintended pregnancies, we have reasons to be optimistic about the future.
But now is not the time to be complacent. It is vital that policymakers understand the global need for continued funding to support these developments. Their support and advocacy has the potential to greatly influence donor government decisions and change the lives of millions of girls and women worldwide.
To borrow the phrase from the youth worker in the beginning of this story, “the reason why we do this work is because we have to.” We need to stay committed — lives are depending on us.