At “married girls clubs,” young wives band together to learn about family planning, communication, and HIV prevention.
In Kenya, a project helps young wives plan their families and their futures
After church on Sundays, the married girls of the rural district of Rachuonyo, in the Nyanza Province of Kenya, eagerly gather in groups of 20 or 30 to ask the questions no one had thought to answer before their marriages.
How can childbirth be spaced or delayed? What is a sexually transmitted infection? Can we protect ourselves from HIV? And how does a young woman discuss these topics with a husband a decade or more her senior?
Although the legal age of marriage for both women and men in Kenya is 18, about a quarter of Kenyan girls are married before their 18th birthdays, and the number is higher in rural areas. Girls traditionally move to their husbands’ homes, where they often have little status and even less access to information and services related to family planning and reproductive health.
At “married girls clubs,” often led by a respected older woman or a religious leader, adolescent girls band together to learn about family planning, communication skills, and other subjects with the potential to help them lead healthy lives. The clubs are one aspect of a project developed by PATH whose main goal is to help the girls delay childbearing and space births. By June 2009, more than 1,600 club meetings had been held, reaching 43,600 participants.
Early marriage, early motherhood
More than 80 percent of married girls ages 15 to 24 in Kenya have given birth. That compares to just a third of sexually active but unmarried Kenyan girls in the same age group. In addition, the earlier a girl gets married, the earlier she has a baby, and early first births are the riskiest for women. In Kenya, the median age at first birth is 16 for girls who are married at 14 or 15, 18 for girls married at 16 or 17, and 19 for girls married at 18 or 19.
This project aims to support these girls by:
- Improving access to family planning options and reproductive health care.
- Expanding the number of reproductive health care providers in their communities.
- Teaching religious leaders, HIV/AIDS counselors, theater troupes, and others how to reach and support married girls with information about reproductive health.
- Increasing the amount of information available on family planning services for women and men, especially those with or at risk for HIV/AIDS.
Getting the message out
The project uses a number of innovative methods to reach girls with information and services and to engage them in discussion. Theater troupes target the girls with audience-participation sketches centered on family planning issues that are designed to elicit conversation. Religious leaders pass on the family planning message at church services, funerals, and other gatherings. Public service announcements in the local language, Dholuo, run on a popular radio station.
Meanwhile, the married girls clubs have proven so popular that, in addition to hearing about family planning, pre- and postnatal care, and communication skills, the girls are learning to enhance their livelihoods. They grow kitchen gardens, run local merry-go-rounds, and raise poultry—activities that often raise their status and their economic well-being at the same time.
The club members’ bonds go deep. Girls who trained alongside the clubs’ original mentors have taken up the role of peer educators, ensuring that the questions of young wives will continue to be answered.
Photo: Wendy Stone.