Kenya must invest in youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services to stem rising HIV infections

Kenyan youth, especially young women, are the most at risk age group for new HIV infections according to data published by the National AIDS Control Council.

Nearly two out of every ten new HIV infections in Kenya are those of young women between the age of 15 – 24 years.

There are several reasons that the National AIDS Control Council gives on why youth aged between 15 years and 24 years are an-at-risk group for new HIV infections.

One of the reasons is that young people in Kenya do not have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services responsive to their special needs. The consequences of this gap are real. For instance, five out of every ten of Kenyans aged between 15 to 19 years do not know their HIV status. Considering that these 15 to 19 year olds are having sex, it is clear that Kenyans aged 15 to 24 years are in trouble.

According to the Ministry of Health’s own assessment through the Kenya Service Provision Assessment Survey of 2010, only 7% of public health facilities have the ability to offer youth friendly services.

This lack of access to youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services means that young people do not have adequate physical facilities where they can go to seek services. It also means that they don’t have access to enough healthcare workers trained and experienced in handling their unique needs.

As a result of these deficiencies, the youth, more often than not, cannot access information about their sexual and reproductive health. More crucially, it also means that there are barriers to access of HIV prevention options like condoms and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (or PrEP) or treatment options like Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) among others.

To right this grave wrong, we must start by consistently investing resources for youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services.

This investment will be used to buy commodities like male and female condoms, putting up youth friendly health facilities, equipping those facilities and recruiting youth friendly health workers.

Another key area of investment in the sexual and reproductive health continuum is social and behavior change communication. National and county governments have to consistently invest in social and behavior change communication programmes to influence young people to make informed decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health.

Social and behavior change communication programmes have to go beyond delivering simple messages or slogans. They have to include the full range of ways in which Kenyan youth share information. Mass media, community-level activities, interpersonal communication and social media among other tools have to be used in these programmes.

It is also important that social and behavior change communication programmes run consistently over a long period of time. This will ensure that desirable behavior becomes engrained in the minds of the youth, thereby increasing the chances that they will act on that knowledge.

The only way that such a large scale investment can be done consistently over a five, 10 or 15-year period is if it is done by government through national level and county budgets.

Obviously, providing youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services is just one of many interventions that can be employed to curb the rising threat of HIV infections to Kenyan youth. But it needs to be done sooner rather than later.

As Kenya joins the rest of the world in commemorating World AIDS day 2016, one tangible and achievable commitment that we can make as a nation is to provide Kenya’s youth with youth friendly sexual and reproductive health information and services. This commitment will no doubt go a long way in helping them beat the threat of HIV and AIDS

Nicholas Shiateya is the Manager, Programmes and Projects, Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung (DSW) Kenya Country Office  

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