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Kenya Today: Talking misconceptions and human sexuality with Jane - a mother and Reverend

Tell us a little about you - a faith leader advocating for SRH in Kenya.

I am Reverend Jane, my work is to serve the International Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV (INERELA+) Kenya Chapter as the Country Coordinator. INERELA+ Kenya is an interfaith network, bringing together faith leaders from different religious affiliations.

The work with INERELA+ Kenya originally started with a focus on HIV, however, we realised that there are other vulnerabilities that lead to transmission of HIV and if not addressed we would never address the spread of HIV and end AIDS, this includes sexual and reproductive health. Other issues are also closely linked like gender based violence, as well as addressing Tuberculosis which has a close correlation to HIV.

What are some of the issues you refer to being faced by young Kenyans today?

In Kenya, we have an increasing number of teenage pregnancies and of unintended pregnancies in early married couples. We need to have conversations about contraception, at an age-appropriate time, so as to not increase the individual’s vulnerability. For example, if a girl becomes pregnant at 16 or 17, she will often not return to school, though we have a back to school policy in place, which alters her life path, and then possibly has a second child by 19. Child bearing could then continue if there’s no discussion or intervention.

We also have an ongoing high level of HIV new infections and an increasing level of gender-based violence seen in campuses. These need to be addressed as a society through education and also with investment in training and services.

Adolescents and young people can struggle understanding who they are, understanding their bodies, understanding how to deal with relationships, understanding how to deal with peer pressure and now as members of a digital, global village, can have these struggles amplified by additional pressures from online platforms and misinformation. [...] My work supports the broader interfaith network to explore these new topics through a religious lens for the health, hope and prosperity of our various communities and nations.

Where did your interest and work in SRHR begin?

Addressing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) is very close to my heart. I see the way young people are trying to navigate their adolescence and the challenges they face, many which stem from lack of information. We need to support them, which includes ensuring access to age-appropriate messaging on SRHR. I am a mother first of three children and I am witnessing the challenges of transitioning from adolescent to young adult first hand.

Around 2010 I had the opportunity to attend a training with Save the Children International, called A Personal Process Oriented Approach to HIV, gender and sexual reproductive health and rights. The training programme lasted three years and was the catalyst to educate myself more in this field and led me, representing the church, to have conversations with UNESCO.

In addition, I have been involved in a process of developing a global toolkit, in collaboration with the World Council of Churches, INERELA+ Global and UNESCO. This toolkit is aimed at helping and guiding religious leaders to respond to sexuality matters, especially focusing on adolescents and young people. I have been part of the development process, including piloting the toolkit and a manual on training faith leaders, finalised and launched following consultation in Addis Ababa in 2018.

Are there learnings you can share from the consultation?

The greatest learning is that we need dialogue - a space to respectfully speak freely, listen and debate, giving time to theological reflection and to interact with the information. Language is important and we quickly learned that we need to be speaking the same language across all our faith leaders in order to have consensus and commitment to use the toolkit. Terminology was key and we deliberately focus on human sexuality.

The other learning is around the platforms that faith leaders have to engage, not just with parents but also with adolescents and young people (AYP) in congregations, but also in schools for chaplains and we need to empower them to support these groups. With this action and supported by scriptures, we now work with over 1,000 religious leaders (interfaith) and have trained just under 2,000, as well as over 600 chaplains and 450 parents and teachers.

What is the aim of these in Human Sexuality trainings?

Religious leaders have an important role in our society - they need to be educated in topics that influence and impact their community’s lives today and know the facts. There are many myths concerning sexuality and SRHR which we hope to dismantle.

Tell us about some of the myths and misconceptions.

Firstly, sexuality is not something that one acquires at adolescence, at a certain age, or when you get married. [...] SRHR needs to be taught as age-appropriate level in and out-of schools.

Another misconception is about gender-based violence (GBV) and its occurrence. Many of the support materials and information is aimed at married women, however, we’re seeing an increase in GBV in schools and at universities and need to be prepared to address this. We need to educate and change the dynamics and circumstances that enable GBV to happen within educational institutions.

Finally, a third is that parenting is instinctive and something you acquire immediately on giving birth or having a child, but that's not the case. We need to be deliberate and prepare the parents not just to think about nutritional and physical provision and protection of their children, but also in terms of provision of information that will help the children navigate through life into adulthood. And yes, this does and must include sexuality education. Understanding this reality we’ve adopted a course called Parenting: A Journey of Love.

Our aim and entry point with faith leaders is to equip them with accurate information so that they are able to handle issues and questions that come at the congregational level. I am also a pastor, serving in a community with an over 70% youthful population. I get to hear many of the issues and challenges that adolescents and young people are experiencing on a day to day basis. We must adapt and understand their needs. Chaplains also have an important role in schools, working alongside guidance and counselling teachers.

Has there been feedback from the attendees?

We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from attendees of the course, who now feel confident and equipped to respond to the questions and disclosures of their congregants and students. There have been chaplains who had previously listened to young people and just comforted them on issues they were going through, however, they are now able to act and do something that will tangibly help.

As spiritual leaders, these needs may be different to our own personal experiences and so we must inform and educate, responding in love without judgement, with guidance founded in faith.

We are also sometimes emergency responders, because a young person has come to us and they have a whole list of issues, some of which you may need to involve parents. With training, religious leaders and chaplains can provide factually accurate information, share possible specialist pathways for support or treatment and provide psychological and spiritual guidance to the young person.

And what do you hope for in the coming year?

I am looking forward to finalising and launching the Religious Leaders Training Guide on SRHR for adolecents and young people: Developing and disseminating this to many faith leaders, chaplains, parents & AYP and further share our learnings and reflections. It is through our connections and sharing that we can be of the greatest service to our young people and to God.

I will be looking to join forces with others in advocating for greater investment in SRHR education in the country. Without proper investment we can not have an impact and deliver on this important education, as well as learn from each other.

I also hope that we can develop an online platform where we can put this information and create an online course that anybody can interact with, complete and gain a certification. I believe that it could be a great tool for faith leaders across Kenya and beyond! It’s not possible for us to reach and know every leader and this would help with reach. I also believe that parents could also benefit from this resource, factual and grounded in their faith.

I am looking forward to being part of change this coming year: Hope does not disappoint.

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