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Senegalese youth are at the heart of research for better adolescent reproductive health

 

In Senegal, an adolescent girl faces significant challenges to reach her full development potential. Exposure to sexual and gender-based violence (GBV), compounded by limited access to health services, restricts the rights of these young women. These conditions are exacerbated by intersectional factors especially among those who are already vulnerable due to poverty, place of residence and low level of education. Combining research and advocacy for and with the involvement of youth is a novel approach that can help improve adolescent reproductive health and wellbeing.

Successes have already been achieved towards this goal as part of a five-year joint IDRC-Global Affairs Canada initiative, contributing to Senegal’s progress towards better adolescent reproductive health. The initiative, called Better Sexual and Reproductive Health for Adolescent Girls in Senegal (ADOS),  aims to improve adolescent reproductive health in the country by supporting locally led participatory action-research and youth advocacy to understand and address how the interactions between reproductive health and GBV influence the health and wellbeing of youth. 

During the first years of the initiative (between 2021-2023), ADOS increased attendance at health-care and youth-counselling centres at intervention sites and successfully advocated with local authorities on the links between adolescent reproductive health and GBV, among other achievements.

ADOS relies on the contributions of researchers and the involvement of young people in an integrated research-advocacy approach. This novel method is key to the production and uptake of evidence on the existing links between reproductive health and GBV to inform concrete actions on adolescent health at the community and national level. It is an inclusive approach that speaks to the need for active leadership from young people in matters that concern their health and wellbeing.

Since its launch in 2020, ADOS has made it possible to reach over 3,300 people through sensitization activities. This includes more than 340 adolescents trained in mobilization and advocacy for adolescent reproductive health and in addressing the negative consequences of GBV. The mobilization of adolescents and young people allowed them to benefit from capacity strengthening, empower and establish themselves as leaders in their communities, and thus contribute to challenging the social and cultural norms that tolerate sexual violence and constitute obstacles to good reproductive health.

Through a range of targeted awareness and advocacy activities and techniques — some using music, art and culture — these teen leaders have brought about notable changes in the behaviour and practices of people of different generations in Senegal. In project areas, the percentage of emerging adolescent leaders involved in advocacy campaigns increased from 76.8% to 83.6%. Adolescent girls involved in the effort have gained recognition from their peers and communities. ADOS has strengthened their abilities to publicly discuss the links between adolescent reproductive health and GBV. The girls’ peers can now more easily identify, prevent and report cases of early marriage and violence. They have also contributed to restoring parent-child dialogue within families. Infusing evidence, peer education and advocacy is one of the most effective ways to positively influence peers. 

Fatou Bintou Diene, teen leader from one of the youth projects, said, “Thanks to the project, I received and passed a training course on reproductive health and GBV which allows me to hold sensitization sessions with my peers. Throughout the project, I gained self-confidence and overcame my fear of public speaking. I enrolled in a school to become a midwife, and I support girls in my community to refer to health-care workers for any issue or report cases of sexist violence without any fear.” 

More than 100,000 people participated in interactive education and mobilization activities that showed how adolescent health and GBV are intertwined, a recent internal ADOS evaluation noted. At the decision-making level, 12 evidence-based actions have been undertaken through established multi-stakeholder mechanisms since the program’s launch. For instance, two municipalities in the Dakar region have adopted budgets reflecting support for improved access to health services. One municipality approved funding dedicated to improving access to health services for people with disabilities. The other has voted to support the organization of awareness-raising activities on adolescent reproductive health and GBV. These moves will improve the situation of adolescents in both municipalities and contribute to informed health decisions and the fight against GBV. 

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A group shot of all the participants at the ADOS Youth Forum on April 17.
SYLVAIN CHERKAOUI
Participants at the ADOS Youth Forum held on April 17, 2024, in Dakar, Senegal.

Speaking at an ADOS Youth Forum held in Dakar on April 17, 2024, Marie-Gloriose Ingabire, director of IDRC’s Central and West Africa Regional Office, said: “In Senegal, 50% of the population is aged less than 19 years old, thus constituting a major asset for the country. IDRC believes in supporting youth empowerment initiatives and providing young girls with the means to make the right health decisions to guarantee their effective contribution in building more sustainable and resilient societies.”

Young people, researchers, community and religious leaders, and representatives of civil society, government institutions and partner organizations, including Global Affairs Canada, attended the forum, during which youth-led civil society organizations presented the results of nine projects carried out in Senegal.

Alassane Diallo, former director general of youth in Senegal’s Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture, told the forum’s participants that, “Evidence on the links between adolescent reproductive health and GBV generated by ADOS will support decision-making processes. This initiative contributes greatly to the efforts made by our ministry. Using a holistic approach, ADOS works with all the key stakeholders, including ministries, for increased impact and sustainability.” 

With more than 60% of Senegal’s population under the age of 25, youth represent one of the greatest opportunities for the country’s future. This future will be brighter when it will be led by the adolescents of today, whose health is protected in their communities and in society at large. Participatory research, with and for adolescents, is key to ensuring that the best well-rounded evidence is made available to decision-makers to better inform policies, programs and services to support this population today and into the future.