The daughter of a single mother, Wangari Wanjiku learned about reproductive health in a biology class at her conservative, all-girls school—the basics, that is.
Anything else, she had to find out on her own—by asking friends, searching the Internet and sharing her questions and concerns on social media. Not an enviable position for a bright, 22-year-old Kenyan attending a prestigious university with dreams of a professional career in which she can contribute to her society.
Information about sexual and reproductive health remains elusive—in fact, it is often a taboo subject, especially with parents, Wangari says—despite such information being critical for young women and men to make healthy choices and plans for their future.
In her second year of college, Wangari learned about the Brighter Future program, a Jhpiego-led initiative in Kenya designed to engage young women and men in their health and empower them to make responsible life decisions. “I joined because I felt there was a lot to be done, and [the program] talked about what most of us face on campus,” she says.
The Brighter Future program, supported by Merck for Mothers, helps clear up the myths and misconceptions many youth have around issues like contraception, and provides a variety of opportunities for judgment-free conversations about sexual health—discussions with their peers, adult mentors and even health care providers.
Wangari shared her experiences as a youth leader for Brighter Future during a panel discussion on “Reimagining Adolescent Health,” hosted by Jhpiego during the September opening week of the United Nations General Assembly.
“It’s funny how you let yourself be defined by the people around you. When people think you are fun to be around, crazy and wild, always dressed to kill—you feel obliged to be those things,” Wangari says, noting that it’s the same for her peers. “During this time when young people are growing up—it’s a journey of self-discovery, and it’s very easy to get lost.
“I have a friend who had a baby,” she adds, “and had to leave school to take care of the baby.” Addressing situations just like this, the Brighter Future program introduces youth to a process of life planning, which empowers them to cast a vision for their lives and act on it.
For Wangari, it set her on a new course.
“By the end of the program, I really got to understand what I was about. I know what I want to achieve in my future. It was a life-changing experience for me,” she says candidly “I discovered for the first time that I am an introvert, and this was such a huge relief because I stopped putting pressure on myself to make new friends, or be the first to speak my mind. And it was the end of my long struggle with low self-esteem.”
As a peer counselor in Brighter Future, Wangari fields questions about sexual health on a regular basis. “My role as a peer leader is to provide information on contraceptives, STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and any other issues that affect youth. I have to put myself out there and share my experiences instead of just listening and listing options.”
In opening the Jhpiego-hosted event in New York last month, Catherine Russell, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, recognized the potential in young women: “In spite of all the challenges girls face, we know that under the right circumstances—when we invest in them, nurture them and encourage them to reach their full potential—adolescent girls can become leaders to create change both in their communities and around the world.”
Wangari couldn’t agree more. To ensure that young people have access to sexual and reproductive health services, she suggests the following:
- Involve parents in providing information, and have mentors talk openly about their own experiences.
- Make reproductive health—not just the theory, but practical issues, like contraception and sex—part of the school syllabus.
- Train more peer educators.
At Jhpiego, we know that we must do everything to empower young people—the leaders of tomorrow— to build a bright future for themselves, for their communities and for their countries. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have a passionate youth advocate like Wangari on our team.