When Vanessa Guerrier first arrived at Christ the King clinic in Port-au-Prince to join the youth health education club, she had no understanding of sexual and reproductive health. “I was completely ignorant of responsible sexuality and even the menstrual cycle,” she said.
In this way, she is typical among her Haitian peers. Many lack basic information about their bodies and especially about their sexual and reproductive health (SRH). As a result, unplanned and teenage pregnancies are common, and adolescents are at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
Vanessa was invited to participate in the monthly health club sessions for 14-24 year olds by an outreach worker from Fondation Pour La Santé Reproductrice et L’Education Familiale (FOSREF), a community
organization supported by MCSP to improve youth health nationwide. Together, MCSP and FOSREF organized regular youth clubs at select health facilities to provide SRH information. Sessions covered a number of topics – including gender-based violence, family planning and HIV – with the aim of empowering young people to practice responsible sexuality and stay healthy.
Through her participation in the youth club meetings, Vanessa gained critical information about her body and practical skills for protecting her health, as well as how to avoid unplanned pregnancy. “I learned how to manage my life, including my sex life and, notably, how to have protected sex,” she said. “I also learned rules for good personal hygiene. For example, I learned how to take precautions to avoid contamination with diseases [like HIV] spread through blood.”
Vanessa’s newfound knowledge and confidence have inspired her to counsel others, which her family supports. “My mother is proud to see me sensitizing other young people in my family and community,” Vanessa said. “She encourages me to participate in the FOSREF meetings.”
She talks to her family and friends about contraception, and encourages them to seek voluntary counseling and testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). “My 17-year-old cousin already has a baby and I talked to her about contraceptive methods. I talk about HIV testing with my friends and I’ve even taken several of them to get tested,” she said.
Youth health clubs are only one component of FOSREF’s comprehensive youth-friendly approach to improving the health of Haitian adolescents. With technical and financial support from MCSP, FOSREF hosted numerous community-based events – journée des portes ouvertes (“open door days”) – to raise awareness of youth health needs and create a supportive environment for adolescents to seek information and services. In 2017 alone, the organization distributed 793,559 condoms and tested 10,745 young people for HIV and STIs. Of those who tested positive for HIV (143), 87% began treatment.
Vanessa is proof that such efforts touch not just individuals, but plant the seed for healthier communities as these individuals are transformed. Now nearly 18-years-old, she is pursuing secondary education and plans to become a doctor to help others.
“I’m aware now, capable of protecting myself correctly, because of the elements of the training sessions,” she said. “Before, I neglected certain things, but now I put them in practice.”