We first piloted the youth empowerment centres in Mbarara as a way of encouraging young people to take charge of their health and future. They have since morphed into a safe space for young people to interact and learn from each other. The merit of these centers is that their youth-friendly appeal actively attracts young people to come to the health centers. From there it is much easier for our peer educators to refer those in need of a service to the health center which is only a few steps away. The centers draw in young people, many of whom fear to come to these health centers. The youth empowerment corners are helping to eliminate the fears that are acting as barriers to accessing health services.
When young people from the community come to play games, our peer educators use this as an opportunity to educate them on their sexual reproductive health, good health-seeking behaviours and other life skills.
Nuwasasira Fortunate, a peer educator from Ruena, advocated the peer-to-peer approach. She remarked how “because we are the same age, young people do not fear us, making it easier for them to share their problems.” The games help create a trusting, friendly relationship as young community members see the peer educators as their friends and not an intimidating figure of authority. Consequently, young people feel comfortable confiding in our peer educators who can then offer reliable advice.
From speaking with the health workers across the district, it is clearly evident they are grateful for the youth empowerment centres. Mucunguzi Gordon, the nurse in charge at Nyaruhandagazi Health Centre, has only been working there now for three months. His previous health centre did not have a youth empowerment centre. As a result, he has been able to witness the positive influence having a centre is having on the health and well being of the community.
He explained how he and the other health workers are always occupied with patients. They do not have time to go out into the community and interact with young people to encourage them to access potentially life-saving services. He remarked that “the peer educators reach those people who we would otherwise not be able to offer the much-needed Sexual Reproductive Health services.”
The centres now take on a holistic approach as they aim to confront a broad range of challenges faced by young people. Our U-Decide peer educators facilitate dialogue with their fellow peers from the community on a range of age-appropriate topics. They cover a wide range of topics that span from entrepreneurship skills to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) information, such as how to prevent transmission of HIV.
The youth empowerment centers are vibrant in both appearance and atmosphere. The bright blue walls, posters, and games make the spaces feel inviting. Our peer educators have taken the initiative to make their own informative posters using colorful manilla paper to go alongside the printed posters from the Ministry of Health and other organisations. They have taken the time to present key messages in an engaging and easily digestible manner for young people. This ensures that young people who come to the center are able to reap as many benefits as possible from the centers. They enable our peer educators to access more young people from across Mbarara and educate them on how to live a healthy and productive life.