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The Right To Choose

This spring I had the opportunity to visit Pathfinder programs in Mozambique for the first time, and, like so many of my colleagues before me, I was blown away by the visible impact of our work. From its beginning as one office in Maputo in 1997, our operations in Mozambique have expanded to seven provincial offices and a staff exceeding 200 people.

Of the many people I met, twenty-year-old Lucia and her boyfriend Huldo stand out in my mind. Lucia and Huldo were the epitome of young, bright-eyed love. They had met about a year ago on a local train outside Maputo, the capital city. Having just finished their studies, both were considering attending university. Lucia had the ambition of becoming a pediatrician, and Huldo, an architect. Both were born in the aftermath of Mozambique’s devastating civil war and were—along with the rest of their generation—symbols of Mozambique’s rehabilitation, promise, and future.

It was less than a week before Valentine’s Day, and Lucia was visiting a health facility for the first time. Visibly nervous, she revealed that her period was late. She had taken “the test” but didn’t know how to read the results. Sitting next to her, Huldo extracted the stick from his shirt’s breast pocket and handed it to the provider.

A Safe Place

When they had questions about their pregnancy test, Lucia and Huldo decided to visit a youth-friendly health clinic that provides sexual and reproductive health services exclusively to adolescents and youth. The separation of facilities helps remove a common barrier for teens: the fear of being recognized by community members and the stigmas associated with asking for services. Lucia and Huldo were two of many young people that day seeking services at the facility, where Pathfinder builds staff capacity to make youth feel welcome in a place that can otherwise feel intimidating.

I was there when Sofia, the community health worker serving the couple, confirmed Lucia was pregnant. Sofia proceeded to provide information on the range of options for Lucia and Huldo to consider.

I don’t think I am ready to be a parent yet. I just don’t think I’m ready,”

Lucia revealed candidly. Huldo, on the other hand, wanted to move forward with the pregnancy. Lucia received a routine pre-natal check-up and Sofia answered the couple’s many questions about the pregnancy.

Our programming in Mozambique is designed to help break through barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services and allow couples like Lucia and Huldo to forge their own path to a healthier future. Grateful for the services and information they received, the couple left the facility with a lot to consider.

Challenges Continue

In a country where 25 percent of all deaths are attributed to pregnancy, childbirth, or unsafe abortions,1 Pathfinder’s work to create national guidelines for comprehensive abortion care is critical.

But we must also work to address cultural norms and gender stereotypes. Girls are taught that menstruation is a disease and boys are told it is okay to beat women.2 These mindsets have attributed to 38 percent of young women experiencing physical violence and 17.5 percent suffering from sexual violence.3 Our programs are working to shift these harmful gender norms.

Throughout my week in Mozambique, I was struck by the absence of men at the youth-friendly health facility and learned that, while disappointing, it is not uncommon. Unfortunately, more often than not, women and girls like Lucia carry the burden of their situations alone. Pathfinder is committed to changing this social norm by supporting men and boys to take more responsibility and ownership of their own sexual and reproductive health.

Close to the clinic, Pathfinder implements the Junt@s program—now in its third year—that works with groups of young people, ages 10 to 19, to promote positive gender norms in primary schools through “health school corners.” The program’s results are obvious to the young people’s parents, who started calling the school to ask why their usually reluctant teenage sons were eager to help cook the household meal!

Lucia and Huldo are just two examples of Pathfinder’s commitment to increasing access to—and meeting needs for— sexual and reproductive health and rights, and Huldo’s presence might be a sign that gender norms are changing for the better. As they left the facility, I shared with Lucia my hopes:

When I return to Mozambique, I hope to see you achieve your goal of becoming a doctor.”

I know the potential is there, and just one seemingly simple interaction with Pathfinder’s work may have made all the difference in empowering her to unlock that very ambition.

1,3 Demographic & Health Survey 2011

2 Pathfinder International