African women championing right to health

During this year’s International Women's Day, the world is celebrating the occasion under the theme “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women's Rights”. It is an opportunity to reflect on progress made, call for change and celebrate women who are playing a critical role in their communities and in the world.  

We feature two women, one from Cote d’Ivoire and another from Zimbabwe, who are doing remarkable work in helping young people gain access to critical health information and services. Vimbai, a young woman from Zimbabwe’s eastern Marondera city, is working with adolescents living with HIV to ensure they receive care. Nearly 1.5 million (89%) of the 1.6 million adolescents living with HIV globally live in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Cote d’Ivoire, 28-year-old Ephrasie Coulibaly Kambou heads a network of youth activists who were part of a campaign that has led the country’s Ministry of Health to issue a directive on free family planning services to adolescents. Adolescent pregnancy and birth is associated with very high mortality and morbidities.  62% of unsafe abortion-related deaths occur in Africa.

Here are the portraits of the two champions.

Vimbai, 21, HIV Fighter
AIDS remains one of the leading causes of death among adolescents in most of the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. In Zimbabwe, an adolescent-friendly health service called Zvandiri, which means "as I am" in Shona is a peer-to-peer programme of Africaid, a non-profit organization, helping to improve the quality of adolescent health care in the country. To help HIV-positive adolescents manage their health care, Community Adolescent Treatment Supporters (CATS), see them at home, in clinics, in support groups and through SMS platforms. Vimbai is one of the CATS.
©WHO/AFRO
Twenty-one-year-old Vimbai works full-time as a Zvandiri peer counsellor. She knows only too well the challenges of being a teenager living with HIV: “My dad died when I was three years old, then my brother died when I was seven years old. When I was nine years old, my mom also died. I'm not sure about my dad, but my brother and my mother died of AIDS-related illnesses. I was put on treatment when I was 11. No one told me – they thought I was very young and wouldn't understand I was HIV-positive. When my status was disclosed, I lost every friend around me – the people I thought were my friends then didn't want to be associated with me. For many teenagers, it's very hard.”
©WHO/AFRO
Vimbai makes home visits. She uses a counselling card game to explain Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) and links people to the services they need. She provides ART and adherence counselling to adolescent’s parents at home and counsels young people during routine clinic visits. She works in partnership with health facility staff to plan, monitor and evaluate the health services available for adolescents.
©WHO/AFRO
Vimbai and the other CATS of Zvandiri are participating in a life-changing peer-to-peer programme that is helping to improve adherence to antiretroviral medication among young people. The end of the AIDS epidemic will only be attained with the meaningful implication of adolescents in programmes and policies, ensuring that none of them is left behind.
Ephrasie, 28, youth sexual and reproductive health advocate
In 2019, Cote d'Ivoire’s Minister of Health issued a directive to offer free family planning services to adolescents aged 15–24 in all school and university health centres as well as public centres. This directive follows campaigns by several organizations working on sexual and reproductive health in Côte d'Ivoire. Among them is the “Réseau des jeunes ambassadeurs pour la santé reproductive et le planning familial” which Ephrasie Coulibaly Kambou head since 2016.
©Ephrasie personal collection
Ms Kambou advocates policy change on sexual and reproductive health issues, specifically on access to sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and young people. She also campaigns for better information and access to family planning services.
©Ephrasie personal collection
Together with her association members, they focus on young girls, especially on menstrual hygiene and prevention of early pregnancy. They provide public health information in communities. They have organized summer camps in the past three years, gathering 200 young people who are educated on family planning and sexual and reproductive health.
©Ephrasie personal collection
“The difficulties we face are the taboos on issues about sexuality in our communities,” says Ms Kambou, who is from a family where sex is a taboo subject. After several years of campaigning, she says there is a gradual change in communities’ attitude towards sexual and reproductive health education. “Today, the vision of people in my community is changing. Not only for me but also for the other young people who work in my organization. We are no longer seen as people who are encouraging their friends to have sex, but rather as people who have been able to get information and are giving good information to their peers. Today we can bring parents together in one place to discuss sexuality issues.”
For Additional Information or to Request Interviews, Please contact:
Bakano Otto

Senior Editor/Writer
Email: ottob [at] who.int

Ameyo Bellya Sékpon

Technical Officer - Communication
Universal Health Coverage / Life Course Cluster
Reproductive, Maternal Health and Ageing (RMH) Team
Tel: +(47 241) 39571
Email: sekpona [at] who.int