In February 2021, MSF is providing support to Parirenyatwa Hospital Isolation Centre, the country’s main referral unit for COVID-19, in Harare, to help them prepare for the next potential surge in COVID-19 infections. © MSF/Caroline Gwature

Young women supporting young women making health choices

Tanatswa (20) is a vibrant peer educator for Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). She is a core member of the MSF Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) project in the high-density suburb of Mbare, Harare in Zimbabwe.

Growing up, Tanatswa had a passion to do something meaningful and life-changing in her community. She grew up in Mbare, one of the oldest suburbs of Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. Mbare has high poverty levels, overcrowding, with high drug and substance use amongst adolescents and young people. This environment predisposes adolescents and young people to risky sexual behaviour that fuels the spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV and amplifies the vulnerability of adolescents.

Youths (15-24 years) make up 20% of Zimbabwe’s estimated 15 million population.

“As I was born and bred in this environment, I have seen the challenges that particularly affect adolescent girls and young women which include early unplanned pregnancy, early marriages, drug and substance abuse. Some girls run away from home to stay at the drug bases where they sell sex in exchange for drugs. I always wanted to change and save my peers’ lives, but I was not sure how best to do it,” Tanatswa says with enthusiasm and determination.

After her grandmother heard about the peer-to-peer model that MSF was rolling out from a local clinic in the suburb, she encouraged Tanatswa to apply.

MSF’s peer-to-peer education program

“When my grandmother referred me to enquire about the peer education program, I was not sure if I was eligible. I was 17 at that time, having finished my ordinary level.” Tanatswa explained.

Tanatswa was recruited for the MSF peer to peer program in January, 2020. Her enthusiasm and passion made her a good candidate.

I am happy to be a community resource that supports women in my community.

“The training I got from MSF staff equipped me with all the necessary information on how to engage with the community. It made it clear what my role was.”

“Peer education opened doors for me. It boosted my confidence and fostered interpersonal communication skills in engaging and working with young people and the community at large,” Tanatswa says.

An MSF peer education having a group conversation with young women.
An MSF peer education having a group conversation with young women.

The community could not accept Tanatswa at first. For them, she was too young to give them such important information. However, with further engagement and interaction with her peers, she became the community role model, with the necessary information to save their lives, facilitating access to free SRH services and other important health care information.

“It was not easy at first, but because I was working with people I already knew, they understood my assignment. Many adolescents and young women are benefiting from this program. I can assist them with HIV self-testing, pregnancy testing, provide emergency contraception, menstrual hygiene management commodities, condoms and refer them to other service providers accordingly based on their needs. I am happy to be a community resource that supports women in my community.”

Ensuring access for the community

Through the peer-led approach, the SRH project has reached out to communities and ensured access to essential SRH services. Peer educators play an important role in raising awareness of SRH services, increasing acceptance of contraceptives and managing menstrual hygiene in communities. To engage effectively with the community, MSF trained peer educators to work with adolescents and young women to provide SRH education and facilitate access to services.

When she is not in the community, Tanatswa spends time at the project’s youth hub in Mbare, where she can access free Wi-Fi. Access to Wi-Fi enables her and other peer educators to research and empower themselves with the information they will share with the young women in their community.

Peer educations distributing sanitary pads in Epworth.
Peer educations distributing sanitary pads in Epworth.

“With access to free access to Wi-Fi at the Matapi Youth Hub, I managed to study for an online certificate in sexual reproductive health for adolescents and received more information on sexual reproductive health education,” she says.

“Peer education should not be overlooked; it has the potential to transform communities, from the peer educator to the young person he or she can reach,” echoes Shinga Mawarire, MSF Nurse Mentor.

Since 2016, MSF has worked with 143 community peer educators for the SRH project in Mbare. These peer educators are recruited from the community. They are experts by experience, some having been sex workers, teen parents, HIV expert patients, school dropouts, drug and substance use survivors, to mention but a few. The peer educators graduate around the age of 23 to make way for new peer educators. When volunteering for MSF, they receive a scholarship to support their dreams.