Young People in Mali Use Theater and Workplace Gatherings to Learn about Sexual and Reproductive Health

October 24, 2022

Young People in Mali Use Theater and Workplace Gatherings to Learn about Sexual and Reproductive Health

According to the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children, and Adolescents (GFF), since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic access to life-saving health interventions for women, children, and adolescents in 36 of the world’s poorest countries—26 of which are in Africa—has decreased by up to 25%. That is equivalent to 4 million women being unable to receive childbirth care, 17 million children missing vaccinations, and more than 5 million women and adolescents losing access to contraceptives. 

That is why the GFF and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Children’s Health engaged MSH to administer a COVID-19 Response and Recovery Small Grants Mechanism to support coordinated civil society and youth advocacy for ensuring service continuity for women’s, children’s, and adolescent’s health in response to COVID-19. 

In Mali, the Association des Enfants Jeunes Travailleurs Mopti (Mopti Association of Children and Youth Workers or AEJT, per its French acronym) received a small grant to promote COVID-19 prevention and reproductive health services and knowledge among youth working in small trades, such as hairdressing, sewing, soldering, and auto repair in the Mopti Region. 

Association des Enfants Jeunes Travailleurs Mopti President Salla Djenepo
AEJT President Salla Djenepo. Photo credit: Aboubacar Dembele

We asked AEJT President, Salla Djenepo, to reflect on the lessons learned from his organization’s work under this small grant. 

1. The project involves 20 youth leaders between the ages of 15 and 24 who serve as educators in their communities. They conduct outreach sessions at training centers for young tradespersons (at hair salons, foundries, textile dying factories) and in areas where people gather—sporting events, open-air markets—to disseminate accurate information about reproductive health services in the context of COVID-19. How did you identify these “frontline educators” and what does their training entail? 

We worked with the managers of these training centers to identify motivated and interested youth that could read and write French, making sure to engage both adolescent girls and boys.  

These young people were trained to carry out awareness-raising activities with their peers. The training focused on COVID-19, early marriage, female genital mutilation, family planning, HIV/AIDS, and sexually transmitted infections, while teaching practical skills like how to use theatre skits to introduce these topics in classroom discussions. The training also equipped these young leaders with communication skills to discuss these topics, some of which are considered taboo. 

After being trained, these committed young volunteers held talks and skits with small groups of 7 to 15 people, and counselors were on hand to address concerns or questions in confidential spaces. 

If and when participants sought support addressing gender-based violence, we were able to refer and accompany them to confidential, one-stop centers with the support of case managers. Family planning and STI [sexually transmitted infection] services are also available for higher-level referrals. 

2. What motivated the use of theater as a means of communication for these messages? 

Communicating about sexuality and related taboo subjects outside of the interpersonal communication that usually takes place with groups of young people is not easy, especially in this region. We also had to find a way to involve adults and communicate without offending people’s sensibilities. The theater forum is an engaging strategy that draws youth in to discuss problems and generate solutions to problems they identified together. It has been an effective way to mobilize more youth and adults from the informal sector because the format gives voice to everyone involved. Theatre is well integrated into our local ceremonies and cultural practices.  

Association des Enfants Jeunes Travailleurs Mopti President Salla Djenepo runs a theater workshop to teach people about COVID and sexual and reproductive health
Youth leaders take part in a theater workshop designed to teach people about sexual and reproductive health issues. Photo credit: Aboubacar Dembele
3. How did you figure out how well the information was getting through to your audiences?   

Every month we tracked participant testimonies and the number of referral cards collected from service providers. We used the cards to count the number of people whom our educators referred for services. 

4. What impact has the project had on reproductive health behavior? 

The project has enabled young people to change their behavior by gaining access to contraception, practicing self-care, and following COVID-19 preventive measures. 

One participant said that the project helped her better manage her menstrual cycle and how to behave during this period. She said, “Before, I used to use old cloths, which, according to the facilitator, could carry germs, but now, thanks to God, I use sanitary napkins which I find comfortable.”  

5. What lessons have you learned and how do you plan to use these lessons to inform future interventions? 

The use of theatre has been an effective means of mobilizing and sensitizing youth and sharing public health information around taboo topics in age-appropriate groups. The model remains an effective strategy to reach more youth in their own institutional settings, especially during pandemic-related restrictions when other lockdowns are in place and sharing referrals to essential family planning and gender-based violence support services in the community. The strengthened collaboration with referral centers enables young people to access the services they really need, especially during COVID.