Hendrica Okondo is World YWCA’s Global Programme Manager on SRHR & HIV. She is Kenyan and has been part of the YWCA movement for many years. She got involved in the movement through her passion for reading. As a young woman, Hendrica used to go to the local YWCA’s library in Nairobi to borrow novels. Hendrica has been a World YWCA staff member for eight years and we would love to share her expertise and insights on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).

1.Why should young women learn about their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights?

Young women have the human right to have accurate information about their bodies. We are all created in the image of God; therefore, every part of our bodies is sacred. It is crucial that young women are aware of their rights, as this knowledge applies to every aspect of their daily life. They have the right to decide when to get married; they must be empowered to decide for themselves when to have sex and not feel pressured to do so. They have the right to learn about their menstrual cycle and not consider it a taboo. They also have the right to decide whether to have children or not. It is equally important for young women to have access to reproductive health services and to reproductive health products such as sanitary pads and contraceptives.

2.You have been working on raising awareness about SRHR for a long time, what, given your experience, are the main issues young women face in rural communities?

To best answer this question, we need to take into consideration the geographical location. We always think that rural communities are only in developing countries, but this is not always true. In highly developed countries like the US, Canada, Australia or the UK, there are ethnic minorities, and indigenous groups who do not have access to services. Some of these communities do not have adequate information due to poverty, marginalization or difficulties related to access. In other areas of the world, such as Southeast Asia and Sub Saharan Africa, there are other issues, such as early marriage or abuse. 13 million young women are married every year to older men; as a result, they are deprived of their right to decide. They normally need the permission of the mother or husband to access the health care system and this lack of freedom normally means reduced access.

Sometimes, it is also a matter of resources: Health care is expensive and young women’s health pays the price. In addition to that, in some countries, 50% of young women report their first sexual encounter is coerced, leading to a high level of teenage pregnancy. In many countries, there is no law to protect these girls from sexual abuse because it is done inside the household by relatives; brothers, fathers or guardians.

3.What are YWCA members doing to address these issues at the community level?

 At the community level, YWCA members are creating physical and psychological safe spaces where young women and adolescent girls can talk to mentors. In These spaces, they are able to ask the difficult questions that they cannot ask their parents or teachers or husbands. For example, the YWCA of India runs a safe space for married girls enabling them to speak to a mentor who can guide them on pregnancy: What to do, where to go, and what services and screenings they need to be healthy and deliver a healthy baby.

4.What more can we do?

 At the local level, I believe that safe spaces are the best-practice model to follow and replicate. The World YWCA has developed a safe space training manual. The manual highlights the importance of leadership: To be leaders, young women need to be able to have control over their own bodies. The manual sheds light on the consequences of unprotected sex, but also defines a sex positive-narrative, where young women have the right to a healthy respectful relationship and the right to delay marriage should they want to pursue their education. This understanding will enable them to develop their full potential as women. At the national level, we need to work with governments to ensure that marriage laws are fair to women and people who condone or force early and child marriage are held accountable. Governments should also work to ensure that young people lead youth-friendly reproductive health services. It is common sense! In small communities, it is unlikely that a young woman opens up to her mother’s friend working in the health care facility. Young women usually talk to their peers about what is going on with their bodies. At the global level, governments must implement SDGs 3 and 5, which have indicators on universal access to comprehensive health care, including sexual reproductive health.