When I met my friend, Marie*, she had recently arrived at university and just learned she was HIV positive. She had lived her entire life with the infection, but it wasn’t until she went to campus health services that she learned about her status.
Shortly thereafter, Marie’s mother revealed that she also had HIV. The medicines she took and had given to Marie for her whole life were for HIV. Now, the mother and daughter attend support group together and set their alarms at the same time every day to take their pills.
Marie approached me because I am a peer counselor at Kenyatta University—in fact, I am the lead peer counselor of a group of seven. There are 100 of us who counsel at the main Nairobi Campus—60 females and 40 males—and we work in groups of seven, each supported by one professor who gives us advice and support. I spend three to four hours each day as a peer counselor—talking and texting with students about their relationships, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and, really, anything related to their sexual and reproductive health.
When Marie came to me, she had little confidence, a lot of stress, and hatred in her heart. But she trusted me to walk her toward a freer and happier life. I introduced Marie to other students who are HIV positive and when she heard their stories, she felt less alone. Every time we met for counseling sessions, she seemed to be more inspired, and after a while, she joined our group as a peer counselor too.
Stories like this are why I spend almost as much time in classes as I do as a peer counselor.
Because I am a lead peer counselor, I was recently selected to participate in research led by Pathfinder’s USAID-funded Evidence to Action (E2A) Project on our university on sexual and reproductive health. E2A examined service statistics from the campus youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services program and talked to students, university administrators, guidance counselors and sexual and reproductive health providers and residential hall housekeepers and wardens for their insights on the factors that influence student demand for sexual and reproductive health services, and their experiences with university life.
That research confirmed much of what I already know: that students, for the first time living away from home, are faced with enormous pressure to not only succeed academically, but also fit in at university and explore their newfound freedom. This often means having sex, or negotiating condom use for the first time. First-year students and students who don’t have a lot of money—some who engage in transactional sex to support their education—are the most vulnerable.
One female student told the researchers: “If you tell a friend you are a virgin, they may go around mocking you about the same. So, if you want to fit in that group, you will find yourself having sex just because you want to be a friend to so-and-so or fit in a particular category.”
They are concerned with their sexual and reproductive health, particularly pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV, yet certain fears—such as other people knowing that they are sexually active—prevent them from accessing the services they need.
“There are those who don’t want to go to anything here in school—they fear being seen—so they end up going outside the campus,” said one male student.
Students who unintentionally become pregnant, because they did not know about contraception, couldn’t access it, couldn’t negotiate with their partner to use a condom or abstain from sex, or believed a myth—like implants are only for married women—will have a hard time succeeding at university if they do not have the requisite support to deal with their situations. A student like Marie who finds out she is HIV positive may feel so stressed out and isolated by her news that she may find it hard to concentrate on her studies and may risk failing out of university.
E2A’s study findings are being used by the university to improve the sexual and reproductive health services offered at Kenyatta University’s 11 campuses. Based on the findings, E2A offered several recommendations to the university including:
- Include students as leaders and resources of the sexual and reproductive health program who can reach students and foster positive gender norms, attitudes, and sexual and reproductive health behaviors.
- Given the multi-faceted context of sexual and reproductive health issues, build participatory, accountable, and responsive stakeholder networks to provide input.
As our university acts on these recommendations, I would like to reiterate the need to involve us—the peer counselors—in not only the outreach activities themselves, but also in decisions about how youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services are run. We need more resources to reach out to the growing student body at Kenyatta University—now 70,000 students large—especially nonresident students who are scattered all over. We need to talk to more students like Marie, so they feel confident and comfortable with us—so they can be proactive in ensuring their own sexual and reproductive health.
It is important to make sure everyone knows us. Because if they know us, they will come to us.
*Names have been changed.
Sophia Mwende is a peer counselor at Kenyatta University in Kenya.
Read this research brief developed by E2A based on the studies at Kenyatta University.