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Reaching the island

©VSO/Jason Mulikita

Amidst rampant teenage pregnancy and disease, watch how one community came together to tackle sexual health taboos in our short film.

Reaching the Island | Busting sexual health taboos in Zambia | VSO short film
Volunteer Monica speaks to young people in Luapula district Zambia ©VSO/Jason Mulikita

Before the project, young people had barely any awareness of how to prevent pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease

Tackling sexual health taboos on a remote Zambian island

"In the beginning they thought we were promoting promiscuity, just by distributing condoms," says VSO volunteer Monica Atim. "Sex is not something that is discussed openly in our African culture."

But that taboo around sex, especially for young people, was creating big problems on Mbabala. 

The silence around sex bred dangerous misinformation - such as the mistaken belief that contraceptives cause cancer.

This remote island in Zambia's immense Lake Bangweulu is home to 2,000 people. They have just one primary school and one health centre with a single nurse. For most, poverty means the mainland - along with developed sexual health services and contraceptive choice - is out of reach.

A teenage mother in rural Zambia | VSO ©VSO/Jason Mulikita

Mary*, now 16, carries her two-year-old son

Mary's* story

Mary is one of those who has suffered as a result of the lack of information, services and contraceptives on Mbabala.

At the age of 14 she realised she was pregnant when her tummy started getting hard. Lack of information and resources had made her vulnerable and naive. As an orphan, nobody in her extended family had ever told her anything about sex or pregnancy.

Mary had to drop out of school and could no longer do paid work. Now at 16 and single mother to a two-year-old, she finds herself socially isolated and more vulnerable.

"Life is more difficult now I am a mother," she says. 

Since the project started, Mary and her cousins have learned about preventing unwanted pregnancy and STIs from the local volunteers in their area - youth and elders trained by VSO.

"If I could go back again (with the information I have now), I would use contraceptives," says Mary, who is now on the pill and happy to know she can't fall pregnant again until she is ready.

According to records at Mbabala, teenage pregnancies have completely reduced since the project, with not a single girl dropping out of school due to pregnancy in 2019.

Two girls in Zambia | VSO ©VSO/Jason Mulikita

Thanks to the community coming together, young people like Veronica and Mary can now access the services they deserve

Meet the people who made it possible

The story of Mbabala is one of a community coming together, and putting aside their differences for the common good.

It's also a story of volunteering, which helps foster the bonds, inspiration and goodwill needed to make such an impact possible.

There were lots of factors keeping the community of Mbabala trapped in health poverty, providing lots of opportunities for volunteering to make a difference:

  • Building young people's knowledge and awareness: Local youth volunteer 'peer educators' did outreach in the community, in the classroom and at the health facility, providing vital sexual reproductive health (SRH) information in a safe and relatable way - among peers
  • Tackling stigma around sexual health: VSO brought on board highly-respected community elders and trained them as volunteer 'change champions', who shared SRH information with older people (who were also very misinformed) to help change community attitudes
Peer educator and musician Alfred | VSO ©VSO/Jason Mulikita
Headwoman change champion in Zambia ©VSO/Jason Mulikita

Volunteer and aspiring musician Alfred is one of the peer educators helping share vital SRH information. Meanwhile, Head woman Maggie is a 'change champion' volunteer and has even gone on to set up a forum of elders to tackle issues like underage drinking

  • Increasing access to contraceptives: Other elders became volunteer 'community-based distributors' - a discreet and confidential way for local people to access condoms and other contraceptives, near to their homes, 24 hours a day
  • Providing best practice tools and information: Specialist volunteers like Monica worked in communities like Mbabala right across Samfya district, training volunteers, setting up five youth-friendly health centres and creating other resources like radio talk shows on SRH topics
Community-based distributor Petronella | VSO ©VSO/Jason Mulikita
VSO volunteer Monica Atim ©VSO/Jason Mulikita

Petronella (short hair) is always ready to help people seeking contraceptives and SRH information. Specialist VSO volunteer Monica Atim is passionate about making sure young people access their human rights - no matter where in the world they live.

About the project

According to UNICEF, three in ten young Zambian women in rural areas aged 13-19 have begun childbearing: that is, they have given birth already or are currently pregnant with their first child. Teenage pregnancy statistics stand at 29 percent with about 16,000 adolescent girls dropping out of school as a result of pregnancy.

VSO with partners including Planned Parenthood Association Zambia (PPAZ) and the Zambian Ministry of Health delivered the three-year Adolescent TALK! project from October 2015. It was implemented in four wards of Samfya District, in the Luapula Province of Zambia. This project aimed at enhancing the Sexual Reproductive Health Services and practices for 7,949 girls and boys aged 10 to 19 years and ensuring young people are better informed, empowered and equipped to make healthy decisions about their health.

The impacts of the project include reduced incidence of teenage pregnancies, uptake of contraceptives and enhanced sexual health knowledge.