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Two young women, one in a brightly striped shawl.

At “married girls clubs,” young wives band together to learn about family planning, communication, and HIV prevention. Photo: Wendy Stone.

In Kenya, a PATH project brought young wives together to plan their families—and their futures

Editor’s note: Since our inception, PATH has championed community-based approaches, including discussion groups, to encourage healthy behaviors and change harmful attitudes. One project, PATH’s “married girls clubs” provided young women in Kenya with new confidence, reproductive health knowledge, and prosperity through weekly meetings. Today, PATH continues to engage women through similar groups in communities worldwide.

After church on Sundays, the married girls of the rural district of Rachuonyo, in the Nyanza Province of Kenya, eagerly gathered in groups of 20 or 30. They were there to ask the questions no one had thought to answer before their marriages.

How can childbirth be spaced or delayed? What is a sexually transmitted infection? Can we protect ourselves from HIV? And how does a young woman discuss these topics with a husband a decade or more her senior?

At “married girls clubs,” often led by a respected older woman or a religious leader, adolescent girls banded together to learn about family planning, communication skills, and other subjects with the potential to help them lead healthy lives. The clubs were one part of a project developed by PATH whose main goal was to help the girls delay childbearing and space births. By June 2009, more than 1,600 club meetings had been held, reaching 43,600 participants.

Early marriage, early motherhood

In Kenya, many women who marry at young ages give birth between the ages of 15 and 24. In contrast, sexually active but unmarried Kenyan girls in the same age group are much less likely to have children. The project sought to support these girls by:

  • Improving access to family planning options and reproductive health care.
  • Expanding the number of reproductive health care providers in their communities.
  • Teaching religious leaders, HIV/AIDS counselors, theater troupes, and others how to reach and support married girls with information about reproductive health.
  • Increasing the amount of information available on family planning services for women and men, especially those with or at risk for HIV/AIDS.

Getting the message out

The project used a number of innovative methods to reach girls with information and services and to engage them in discussion. Theater troupes targeted them with audience-participation sketches centered on family planning issues designed to elicit conversation. Religious leaders presented family planning messages at church services, funerals, and other gatherings. And public service announcements in the local language, Dholuo, were a familiar presence on a popular local radio station.

The married girls clubs proved so popular that, in addition to teaching women about family planning, pre- and postnatal care, and communication skills, they grew to include education on ways to enhance their livelihoods. Club members began to grow kitchen gardens, run local merry-go-rounds, and raise poultry—activities that raised their status and economic well-being at the same time.

As the women got to know one another, they also developed deep bonds and friendships. Many of the girls who trained alongside the clubs’ original mentors later took up the role of peer educators, continuing to answer questions for—and empower—new groups of young wives.