Ms. Worknesh Kereta, nicknamed “Mother of Youth” by her peers, is a nurse and public health professional who has dedicated her career to revolutionizing sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services for adolescents and youth in Ethiopia.
Her mother’s experience of teenage pregnancies and early death from pregnancy-related complications motivated Ms. Kereta to ensure young women have access to comprehensive SRH services and education.
“If you educate a girl, she will have knowledge of her individual rights and her freedom of choice and will exercise those rights. She can then educate her family and her whole community,” she says, while pointing out Ethiopia’s high teen pregnancy rates, which are currently around 13%.
Ms. Kereta initially practiced as a nurse in rural Ethiopia, but due to understaffing, also served as a midwife and pharmacist. She then relocated to the regional capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s State, eventually becoming a tutor, assistant director, and director of the health professional training college there. She continued as a coordinator at a regional training center where she established inclusivity programs, training health professionals to work holistically in rural communities.
As a mother of three, she understands the physical, emotional, social, and mental changes children undergo during their formative years. Early on in her career, she recognized the importance of mentorship and counseling in shaping young lives. After joining Pathfinder Ethiopia and getting learnings and insights from a Pathfinder-led model program in Mozambique, she piloted a Youth Friendly Services (YFS) program from the ground up. Ms. Kereta started by integrating youth-friendly health services in 20 health facilities that have since been scaled up and expanded in Ethiopia across 668 public health facilities.
The YFS offers a comprehensive health service that maintains confidentiality and privacy for adolescents and youth to access counseling and health services on various health-related matters, including contraception, abortion care, menstrual health management, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
Over the past 17 years, Ms. Kereta has expanded the YFS pilot program into a nationwide initiative with dedicated Centers of Excellence. Today, the government of Ethiopia has become a proactive partner in developing, funding, and implementing a national program for adolescents and youth.
“There have been huge changes since the start of this program. There are still challenges, still areas with limited access. But ownership has been taken by the Ministry of Health. We will no longer look back, the program will continue to get stronger,” she says.
“There are 33 million adolescents and youth in Ethiopia, and they are my children, my family. We need to help them get age-appropriate SRH information and services, raise their own voices to participate in the policy-making process, engage in community action and become active citizens,” she says.
Ms. Kereta is the first woman to have received a gold medal award from the Ethiopian Public Health Association. By integrating services for young people into the public health system, she has created a platform for adolescents and youth engagement that enables them to manage their own well-being.