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Archives for Youth

Saving Mothers, Giving Life

The Chikomeni Rural Health Centre in eastern Zambia offers Basic Emergency Obstetrics and Newborn Care services to its clients. / Anne Jennings, Rabin Martin.

The Chikomeni Rural Health Centre in eastern Zambia offers Basic Emergency Obstetrics and Newborn Care services to its clients. / Anne Jennings, Rabin Martin.

For the staff at the Matanda Rural Health Center in northern Zambia, help during emergencies was hard to find. The nearest hospital is 60 kilometers away—40 of them over a rough gravel road. Lacking a cell tower, health center staff would walk or ride 27 kilometers in order to call for an ambulance. Until recently, nurse Esther Kabaye was the center’s only clinician; she treated women in the region when complications arose during pregnancy.

Through Saving Mothers, Giving Life, a public-private partnership launched in 2012, Kabaye began a mentorship program in which she met once a month with a district mentor, developing the necessary skills and knowledge for emergency obstetric and neonatal care.

These efforts were rewarded after only a few months, when Helen, a 35-year-old woman from a nearby village, was brought to the health center in labor. She successfully delivered a healthy baby, but afterwards began bleeding heavily. Kabaye identified the emergency as a postpartum hemorrhage, and promptly performed a bimanual compression of the uterus, saving Helen’s life.

“I am so happy that I am able to effectively handle emergencies and save lives that would have been lost,” Kabaye said. She now teaches other nurses, amplifying the lifesaving impact that she has had on her own community and others nearby.

Stories like Kabaye’s are not uncommon within Saving Mothers, Giving Life districts. USAID is a founding member of the partnership, launched in 2012 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an innovative, integrated approach to health systems. Saving Mothers, Giving Life seeks to reduce maternal and newborn mortality by increasing the demand for services, facilitating access to lifesaving care, and strengthening health systems at the district level.

The initiative is supported by a range of partners, including the governments of Uganda, Zambia, the United States and Norway; Merck for Mothers; Every Mother Counts; Project C.U.R.E.; and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Target districts in Uganda (left) and Zambia. High levels of success during Phase 1 (June 2012-June 2013) led to the expansion of the program during Phase 2. Mid-Initiative results show even greater improvements in maternal mortality during Phase 2. / Saving Mothers, Giving Life

Target districts in Uganda (left) and Zambia. High levels of success during Phase 1 (June 2012-June 2013) led to the expansion of the program during Phase 2. Mid-Initiative results show even greater improvements in maternal mortality during Phase 2. / Saving Mothers, Giving Life

Initially implemented in four districts each in Uganda and Zambia, Saving Mothers, Giving Life emphasizes adequate and timely care for pregnant women and new mothers. The initiative focuses on three primary delays to lifesaving maternal care: the delay in seeking services, reaching services, and receiving high-quality care. The initiative generated astounding results: The target facilities in both Uganda and Zambia saw a 35 percent drop in maternal mortality in a single year.

Based on such astonishing success, the program was expanded in 2014 to an additional 12 districts in Zambia, and another 6 districts in Uganda. This week, I am excited to share the continued success of the initiative with our 2015 Mid-Initiative Report.

In Uganda, the institutional maternal mortality rate has fallen by 45 percent since the beginning of the initiative. This reflects a 30 percent increase in the rate of delivery in facilities that provide emergency obstetric and newborn care. Such inspiring results are not limited to health facilities, however: Across the target districts as a whole, maternal deaths have decreased by 41 percent—not just among women who delivered in a facility, but among the districts’ entire population

Women queue up for health services at the Chikomeni Rural Health Centre in eastern Zambia. / Anne Jennings, Rabin Martin.

Women queue up for health services at the Chikomeni Rural Health Centre in eastern Zambia. / Anne Jennings, Rabin Martin.

In Uganda’s Kabarole District, District Health Officer Dr. Richard Mugahi faced a challenge. “We had enough midwives and equipment, but mothers were not delivering in facilities,” he says. “They preferred delivering with the support of traditional birth attendants.”

With the support of Saving Mothers, Giving Life, the Kabarole District established a Demand Creation Committee to encourage women to take advantage of family planning services, prenatal care visits, and health facility deliveries. The Kabarole District has also used radio broadcasts to educate communities about the risks of giving birth at home and encourage them to give birth in a facility. The initiative is community-owned, sustainable in the long term, and—most importantly—effective.

The results from Zambia are equally as encouraging. Since the launch of Saving Mothers, Giving Life, institutional maternal mortality has fallen by 53 percent in the target districts. Nearly 90 percent of women are now giving birth in a facility, compared to 63 percent at the outset of the initiative. And the number of women who have received treatment to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS to their infants has increased by 81 percent.

Mwasemphangwe Zonal Rural Health Centre in Zambia offers Basic Emergency Obstetrics and Newborn Care services to its clients. / Anne Jennings, Rabin Martin.

Mwasemphangwe Zonal Rural Health Centre in Zambia offers Basic Emergency Obstetrics and Newborn Care services to its clients. / Anne Jennings, Rabin Martin.

These results are heartening. They speak to the success of the approach employed through Saving Mothers, Giving Life that revolves around localized, evidence-based interventions. Efforts at the district level strengthen districts’ health systems as a whole, while community-level interventions generate demand for services among women and their families by changing social norms. The initiative is active in two dozen districts across Uganda and Zambia, with expansions underway in additional districts, as well as in Nigeria.

Yet perhaps even more encouraging is the potential that Saving Mothers, Giving Life has to extend far beyond the borders of Uganda, Zambia and Nigeria. The approach has proven to be successful, and is continuously fine-tuned and developed through extensive monitoring and feedback. The organizing principles employed by Saving Mothers, Giving Life can serve as an example to countries across the globe, who can adapt the model for use in their own communities.

The partnership has brought together the diverse strengths of a variety of organizations, contributing substantially to the mission to end preventable child and maternal deaths within a generation. Saving Mothers, Giving Life has amazed and inspired me over the past two and a half years that I have directed the Secretariat, and I am excited to see what we are able to accomplish in two and a half more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Claudia Morrissey Conlon is USAID’s Senior Maternal and Newborn Health Advisor and the U.S. Government lead for Saving Mothers, Giving Life.

Advocating for Sign Language Education as a Human Right

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Georgine Auma in Washington, D.C. for the Young African Leaders Initiative. / Georgine Auma

As children growing up in Kenya, Georgine Auma and Natha Yare were excluded from their right to education.

Why? Because they are deaf. Access to education in sign language is still denied to millions of deaf and hard of hearing children, and even those who are lucky to receive an education — like Georgine and Natha — often lack teachers or specialists adequately trained in sign language, causing children to miss early language acquisition milestones that assistive devices like cochlear implants or hearing aids cannot provide.

For Natha, being deaf meant she couldn’t go to a local school, and instead attended a school for the deaf 15 hours away by bus. Even there, though, Natha was denied her right to a quality education.

“The government decided to introduce new teachers that knew no Kenyan Sign Language; these teachers filled blackboards with words and gestured for us to copy,” Natha said. “When we finished, we felt like we accomplished something. Afterwards, we went outside to run and play, not understanding what was copied.”

In many countries like Kenya, social stigma causes parents and community members alike to perceive deaf and hard of hearing children as impaired or altogether unable to learn.

NathaYare

Natha Yare (far right) with the deaf football team she helped organize at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. / UNHCR

When Georgine became deaf at the age of 9, her parents didn’t know what to do with her. Although she already had a strong language foundation, her parents kept her from school for a full year before deciding to re-enroll her equipped with what they believed was a solution: hearing aids.

“I returned to the same school I was in before — needless to say, I never understood a thing taught in class,” Georgine said. “As a coping mechanism, I developed a love for books and literally read everything I could. Reading helped me stay within the top three of my class.”

Georgine recounted struggling with isolation and an identity crisis while growing up. “I thought I was the only deaf person in the world until I discovered Kenyan Sign Language at Maseno School for the Deaf,” she said. “There, I finally found my identity and felt a sense of belonging.”

USAID’s Commitment to Access and Inclusion

When I hear stories like Georgine and Natha’s, it takes me back to Kenya, where I worked at two schools for the deaf as a Peace Corps volunteer. The challenges faced by deaf and hard of hearing people are still prevalent, though; I recently attended the quadrennial World Federation of the Deaf conference, where over 100 deaf youth representatives echoed the same themes of barriers to sign language and education.

USAID is working to change this, providing access to education and sign language around the world. Education projects promoting sign language have been implemented in countries including Ecuador, Georgia and Morocco.

USAID partnered to produce Ecuador’s first-ever sign language dictionary, and with the current All Children Reading Grand Challenge initiative, the Agency is developing revolutionary software to support bilingual education in Morocco and Georgia. In Morocco, with early grade reading software using both Moroccan Sign Language and Arabic, deaf students have been shown to develop better literacy skills, learn better, and thinking more outside of the box than they did before.

Inclusive education is becoming an important theme on the global stage. It is important to ensure that students like Georgine or Natha aren’t left behind. Quality education for deaf and hard of hearing students means equipping teachers with fluency in sign language, thus creating truly inclusive spaces for all learners — because every child has a right to be educated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Josa is a Program Analyst working in USAID’s Office of Education. Follow him @JoshJosa.

Overcoming the Stigma of Disability Across the Globe

USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack greets young women in an English class at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack greets young women in an English class at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

Growing up in Laos, Chanhpheng Sivila contracted polio at the age of 3, which affected her leg and spine and made walking difficult. When it came time to go to school, her parents wouldn’t let her attend, telling her they couldn’t afford a school uniform for all 12 of their children.

But Chanhpheng was determined to get an education. Defying her family’s reservations, Chanhpheng decided one day to steal her big sister’s old school uniform and then secretly followed her to school. Her boldness paid off. The teachers at school saw Chanhpheng’s determination and convinced her parents to let her attend.

The 4-foot-7 Chanhpheng battled her way through school and eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the National Academy of Politics and Public Administration in Vietnam and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Rattana College in Laos. She refused to let the stigma of having a disability get in her way.

In 1990, Madam Chanhpheng founded an organization that became the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre. She is now a tireless and inspiring advocate for the rights of women and girls with disabilities.

25 Years of Empowerment

As Madam Chanhpheng’s center celebrates 25 years of empowering women and girls with disabilities in Laos, the United States is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark legislation guarantees rights of individuals with disabilities in the United States.

It also serves as model legislation informing disability rights internationally, including in many of the countries where USAID works today. The law’s principles of access, inclusion and non-discrimination are woven into USAID’s own Disability Policy, which promotes the inclusion of persons with disabilities across all of our programs.

Dr. Jill Biden and USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack pose with students from Hanoi College of Information Technology in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

Dr. Jill Biden and USAID Senior International Education Advisor Christie Vilsack pose with students from Hanoi College of Information Technology in July 2015. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

I recently accompanied Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden on a trip to Laos and Vietnam. On the trip we saw some of USAID’s efforts to give children and youth with disabilities access to education as well as workforce development training.

Dr. Biden recognized the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre for its work educating and empowering young women in Laos over the last two and a half decades. Each year, the center provides basic education, life skills and job-related training for 35 young women. Since 2002, over 500 young women with disabilities have graduated from the center.

Our delegation visited a reading class and a papermaking demonstration, and then we bought scarves woven by the women in the program. The center benefitted from a USAID grant given to World Education Laos through the Senator Patrick Leahy War Victims Fund; the fund primarily helps individuals with disabilities in conflict-affected countries.

While in Asia, Dr. Biden and I also visited students from the Hanoi College of Information Technology in Vietnam, where USAID has collaborated with Catholic Relief Services since 2007 to provide advanced computer skills training to over 700 youth with disabilities. About 70 percent of the program’s graduates have found jobs; a few have even found their life partners in the class and have plans to marry.

The U.S. Government has supported inclusive development programs in Vietnam for the last 25 years, even before normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995.

The Road Ahead

Madam Chanhpheng Sivila shows off a scarf made by young women at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

Madam Chanhpheng Sivila shows off a scarf made by young women at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre. / David Lienemann, Official White House Photographer

According to UNESCO, most children with disabilities in developing countries are out of school. The problem isn’t that they don’t want to be in school or that they can’t afford it. The reason is often negative and discriminatory attitudes, like those faced by Madam Chanhpheng, combined with physical barriers.

USAID is committed to finding new strategies to reach people with disabilities. Earlier this year, our All Children Reading Grand Challenge for Development awarded funding to five organizations for their low-cost, technology-based solutions to promote literacy for children with disabilities. They are developing and implementing these reading technologies over the next two years in Georgia, India, Lesotho, Morocco and the Philippines.

Another major obstacle to addressing the out-of-school issue is the lack of data on children and youth with disabilities. A great first step would be to gather data on the numbers of children with disabilities in and out of school, disaggregated by type of disability. This would help us to know who is being left out of the education system and allow us to study the barriers in order to plan effective interventions.

The data would undoubtedly be telling, but we will also need to open our minds to what is happening behind the numbers. By learning from people like Madam Chanhpheng, we will be better positioned to steer the agenda for educating children and youth with disabilities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is the Senior International Education Advisor at USAID. Follow her @ChristieVilsack.

Around the World in Videos: How USAID is Helping Curb Child and Maternal Deaths

Mom and baby are doing fine because mom was taught how to perform Kangaroo Mother Care to keep her premature newborn warm. / Molly Ronan, Embrace Global

Mom and baby are doing fine because mom was taught how to perform Kangaroo Mother Care to keep her premature newborn warm. / Molly Ronan, Embrace Global

In 1990, more than 12 million children under the age of 5 died every year because of preventable conditions and diseases. Today, we face a situation considerably less bleak.

But still, far too many children today are being robbed of the chance to lead full, healthy lives. They are being robbed by illnesses we can prevent and treat. And far too many mothers won’t get to hold their newborn in their arms. These women won’t have the chance to raise their families or contribute to their communities.

Over the past six years, the Obama administration has strategically focused our maternal and child health programs in the 24 countries that account for more than 70 percent of child and maternal deaths globally.

By providing expectant mothers with high-quality and respectful care during delivery, resuscitation for newborns, vaccinations, diarrhea treatment and education about the importance of breastfeeding and handwashing, it is estimated we have helped save the lives of nearly 2.5 million children and nearly 200,000 mothers since 2008.

Acting USAID Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt joins Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and heads of delegations from around the world at the Call to Action Summit on Aug. 27 in New Delhi, India. / Clay Doherty, USAID

Acting USAID Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt joins Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and heads of delegations from around the world at the Call to Action Summit on Aug. 27 in New Delhi, India. / Clay Doherty, USAID

This week in New Delhi, I join health ministers from those priority countries and experts from across the globe for The Call to Action Summit to take stock of progress, share best practices and forge alliances.

Here are snapshots of some of USAID’s efforts around the world.

India

Like all mothers, Satyawati wants the best for her children, including for her newborn son. In a world where motherhood is still a risky endeavour, her story reflects the Indian Government’s new approach to maternal and child survival. With help from her local health worker, Satyawati knows how to best care for her children. She has had them vaccinated, and she practices proper hygiene at home.

Millions more have benefited from India’s recent efforts to reduce maternal and child deaths. In fact, under-5 mortality has dropped from 126 per thousand live births in 1990 to 53 per thousand live births in 2013. The government is using a scorecard to track its progress, providing transparency and accountability.

Malawi

“It’s heartbreaking to not have the equipment you can use on a baby to survive,” said Indira Chikomoni, a nurse at Zomba Central Hospital in Malawi. But with USAID’s support, 27 hospitals throughout Malawi now have access to a device called the Pumani bCPAP, which helps newborn babies breathe until their lungs have fully developed. The device has tripled the survival rate for babies treated for respiratory distress syndrome.

Gloria Mtawila’s son Joshua, who was struggling to breathe at birth, stayed on the machine for a month until eventually he could breathe on his own, and now he is a healthy baby boy.

Ethiopia

Adanech Belay is a proud mother of three, one of millions of rural families that used to live beyond the reach of the health system in Ethiopia. With USAID’s help, the Ethiopian Government has trained more than 38,000 health workers and deployed them around the country. Now, Belay can give birth in a clinic. She knows about vaccines, hygiene and family planning. Health extension workers now form the backbone of Ethiopia’s health care system, empowering families like hers to take charge of their own health. And the efforts are working.

In September 2013, Ethiopia announced it had achieved Millennium Development Goal 4—reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015—a full two years ahead of schedule. In 1990, Ethiopia’s under-5 mortality rate was one of the highest in the world at 204 for every 1,000 live births; by 2013, this rate had been slashed to 64 for every 1,000 live births.

Nepal

Until recently, three in 100 Nepali babies died before they were 1 month old, often from infections introduced into the body through the umbilical cord stump. In Nepal, where home delivery is common, a newborn’s umbilical cord has traditionally been cut with dirty household tools, and substances like oil, turmeric or even cow dung were rubbed on the stump to encourage “healing.”

All that is changing now with the support of USAID. With our partner JSI, we’ve helped develop a low-cost antiseptic gel we’re providing to pregnant women free of charge. A network of 50,000 female volunteer health workers are teaching communities how this little tube and new healthy practices can save their babies’ lives.


When a child dies, and when a mother dies giving birth, it is a tragedy for all of us. Because we miss out on everything they might have offered, and because it continues the cycle of extreme poverty that holds the entire world back. Together, we can break that cycle.

The goal of ending preventable child and maternal deaths is within our reach. We will continue Acting on the Call until every mother and child has the chance to lead a full, healthy life.

An Appeal for More Support for Youth Civic Engagement

Students in Jordan debate on a live TV show as part of the Ana Usharek and Usharek+ youth political participation program. / Haniyeh Dmour, National Democratic Institute

Students in Jordan debate on a live TV show as part of the Ana Usharek and Usharek+ youth political participation program. / Haniyeh Dmour, National Democratic Institute

The program carries a simple name, but a powerful purpose.

Since 2012, Ana Usharek — which means “I Participate” in Arabic — has brought together more than 11,000 young people across Jordan to take a leading role in promoting civic participation and engaging with government. This is noteworthy in a country where young people have limited opportunities to engage in public policy processes — despite representing about 70 percent of the population.

Through local advocacy initiatives and peer-led discussions on democracy and human rights, university and high school students are raising their voices on important issues at a critical period in their country’s history.

They’ve challenged the views of decision makers and members of parliament in roundtables and town hall meetings. They’ve visited local organizations, discussing such issues as the 2013 parliamentary elections, decentralization and political party laws.

Youth involved in Usharek+, the advanced student participation program, have led dozens of local advocacy initiatives addressing issues such as changing the university grading system as well as amending the Press and Publications Law.

It’s clear: Young changemakers, particularly when given opportunities and support, have the vision, imagination, energy, ability and persistence to help bring lasting, positive social change.

On International Youth Day, we are reminded that the international development community must build stronger partnerships with youth so they can not only meaningfully participate in development programs but also in important decision-making processes within their communities, nations, and at the global level.

Too often, youth participation efforts are narrowly focused on “youth” issues which frequently exclude broader societal concerns, as many older people think the young aren’t interested in “abstract” issues such as democracy.

But in-depth country studies, conducted by Restless Development, revealed that governance was the most important issue overall for the young people surveyed. And “an honest and responsive government” was listed among the top four concerns in the United Nation’s MyWorld2015 survey, whose respondents were overwhelmingly under 30.

In Nicaragua, partner organizations bring together hundreds of youth every year to foster democratic values and provide them with leadership skills. / Bartolomé Ibarra, National Democratic Institute

In Nicaragua, partner organizations bring together hundreds of youth every year to foster democratic values and provide them with leadership skills. / Bartolomé Ibarra, National Democratic Institute

But a few key impediments need to be addressed. For example, we need to create more meaningful opportunities to engage youth in civic issues, since adults frequently dominate existing channels for participation. In addition, we need to focus on educating youth about public policy issues and help them develop skills in critical thinking, public speaking and advocacy.

Most importantly, to counter apathy, we must help instill in young people the belief that their participation will indeed make a difference in the future of their country.  One way of doing this is to provide youth the opportunity to engage in efforts in which they can make a difference, and achieve at least a small degree of success.

These challenges are even greater among marginalized youth, such as young women, adolescent girls, LGBTI, indigenous youth, and youth who are disabled or are from minority ethnic groups.

The Ana Usharek and Usharek+ programs, both supported by USAID and implemented by our partner the National Democratic Institute, are tackling these challenges in Jordan and have built up the capacity of youth to engage in constructive dialogues on important public policy issues.

Similarly, USAID is working to enhance youth participation in political processes and other critical issues, including countering violence, promoting peacebuilding, and supporting inclusive, transparent and accountable governance in places such as Kosovo, Kenya, Nicaragua and Guatemala, among others. President Obama’s youth leadership programs, such as YALI, also play a critical role as they help generate support for youth participation.

As we celebrate International Youth Day, let’s reflect on the various ways in which we can support more meaningful youth civic participation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryanne Yerkes is a senior civil society and youth advisor in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.

Empowering Youth: Expanding Access to Reproductive Health

Youth face unique economic and social barriers to receiving family planning services, limiting their ability to make healthy choices about their reproductive health. USAID is committed to making youth’s aspirations a reality by expanding access to these services. / Neil Brandvold, USAID

Youth face unique economic and social barriers to receiving family planning services, limiting their ability to make healthy choices about their reproductive health. USAID is committed to making youth’s aspirations a reality by expanding access to these services. / Neil Brandvold, USAID

Like millions of women around the world, I want to help my children pursue the lives they dream of having. I want my younger child, a teenage girl, to have the same opportunities as the older one, a boy. I hope both of them will be treated fairly, regardless of their gender, as they acquire an education. I want them to develop the confidence to accomplish anything they strive for, and have every opportunity open to them.

As young adults, I want them to understand the importance of family planning so they are empowered to make good decisions. I hope they will wait to have a child until the time is right. If and when they decide to start families, I want them to be able to choose both the number of children they have and the timing and spacing of my grandchildren.

In my visits to USAID’s country programs, I’ve spoken with women across the globe — from Ethiopia to India — who want the same. What I want for my son and daughter are things that all young people deserve. Advancing youth’s access and understanding of family planning is not a “be all and end all” solution to poverty, inequity and poor health, but it’s still critical to ensuring healthy and fulfilling lives.

Yet too often, youth are underserved by family planning programs and reproductive health education, including HIV prevention. HIV and pregnancy-related complications are the major causes of death among youth worldwide. In many countries where USAID works, high levels of childbearing and an unmet need for contraception among adolescents are concerns.

Youth are not a homogenous population; their needs vary depending on their circumstances. In some areas, where there are social norms encouraging childbearing to prove fertility, married youth have a high unmet need for family planning. Young people outside urban areas are often overlooked by family planning programs and must travel long distances to find such services.

Why should we care? Expanding access to reproductive health services and information is vital to reducing inequality. When girls understand the importance of healthy timing and spacing, and when men and boys are engaged in family planning efforts, we are closer to achieving gender equality. Men and women’s equal investment in reproductive health strengthens families and improves the economic wellbeing of communities.

Maimouna Ba, the operator of a small reproductive health clinic in Senegal, explains the female condom to a university student. Local efforts of community members like Maimouna helps empower youth to make smart decisions about their reproductive health. / Benjamin Bynum

Maimouna Ba, the operator of a small reproductive health clinic in Senegal, explains the female condom to a university student. Local efforts of community members like Maimouna helps empower youth to make smart decisions about their reproductive health. / Benjamin Bynum

Making access available

USAID’s Office of Population and Reproductive Health has prioritized youth, and the Agency as a whole is taking action to reach this underserved group.

USAID’s global flagship for strengthening family planning and reproductive health service delivery, Evidence 2 Action, is meeting the needs of young people by identifying, adopting and scaling evidence-based practices on a country-by-country basis. Similarly, USAID’s first dedicated cross-sectoral youth development project, YouthPower, aims to increase youth engagement in development and achieve positive outcomes across multiple sectors, including reproductive health.

USAID works with numerous partners to empower youth. In Senegal, a small reproductive health clinic, supported by USAID since 2012, provides services and counseling to university students in a safe and confidential setting. In Ukraine, a local NGO with its genesis in a former USAID-funded project called Together for Health mobilizes local youth to raise awareness of family planning and reproductive health issues, while dispelling common myths and misconceptions regarding contraception.

Youth account for more than 30 percent of the population in many developing countries. To harness the immense potential of the world’s young people, the global community must increase efforts to meaningfully involve youth in the decisions that impact their lives.

When we support young people’s aspirations and engage them in the global conversation on family planning, they better understand the importance of delaying the age when they have their first child and spacing pregnancies.

This not only will improve health outcomes, but will enable girls to remain in school, get jobs and meaningfully participate within their communities. Expanding educational and livelihood opportunities strengthens countries’ economies, while ending the cycle of poverty and making the world a better place.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen Starbird is the director of the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at USAID.

Fostering a Sense of Belonging Key in Preventing Youth Violence

USAID and A Ganar run a sports and leadership program that partners with companies like Nike and Coca Cola to increase employment opportunities for at-risk youth. / Partners of the Americas

USAID and A Ganar run a sports and leadership program that partners with companies like Nike and Coca Cola to increase employment opportunities for at-risk youth. / Partners of the Americas

What do violent street gangs in the United States and Central America and extremist groups in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have in common?

The answer to that question — which violence prevention researchers and practitioners are increasingly concerned with — could be the key to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems.

So far, group identity has been found to be a major factor in kids making the “irrational deliberative decision” to join a gang.

From the inner city streets of L.A. or Baltimore, to the rough barrios of Tegucigalpa or Guatemala City, to the violent post-revolutionary urban districts in Tunis, youth are getting involved in gangs or extremist groups in the pursuit of one simple thing: belonging.

A young Arab who once considered joining ISIS told USAID staff in Tunisia, “I just wanted to be part of something.”

The same feeling has been articulated by hundreds of disaffected youth in American urban ghettos, as well as in marginalized neighborhoods of Central America.

This was one of the themes addressed by experts at the USAID-sponsored L.A. Gang Violence Prevention and Intervention Conference, held in Los Angeles earlier this month.

At the conference, Robert Örel, a former neo Nazi, shared a similar yearning for joining the white supremacist group as a teenager in Sweden. “It was about forming an identity,” he said.

“The group helped me channel my anger and disappointment,” he added.

Fabian Debora, a former gang member in California, told the audience about the physical abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of a relative. As a teen, Debora said, the abuse made him feel angry, and so he wanted to take it out on everyone else.

This situation is forcing governments and civil society organizations around the globe to double down on prevention and counter-recruiting efforts. USAID supports such efforts in different corners of the world, including Mexico, Central America and North Africa.

Jesus Lanza, of Honduras, won an entrepreneurship contest with his burger business, part of a program to boost job skills among at-risk youth. / David Snyder, Creative Associates International

Jesus Lanza, of Honduras, won an entrepreneurship contest with his burger business, part of a program to boost job skills among at-risk youth. / David Snyder, Creative Associates International

For those of us who attended the Gang Conference from across the United States, Mexico and Central America, the personal testimonies of panelists—like Örel and Debora—sounded all too familiar.

The feelings of disconnect and hopelessness that motivate youth to join violent and extremist groups echo what I’ve heard repeatedly from at-risk youth in Guatemala on their reasons for pursuing lives of violence.

Similarly, Michele Piercey from Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) — who led countering violent extremism programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Tunisia — shared with us innovative strategies used in Tunisia to foster a sense of belonging in at-risk youth. The goal is to counter the despair many Arab youth experienced in the wake of the Arab Spring.

She showed us pictures and videos of youth who learned to express their feelings through art and music, such as rap and hip hop. USAID is pursuing similar strategies here in Guatemala.

Honduran Police Sub Commissioner Cesar Mendoza advocated at the conference for policymakers to invest more in prevention than in “reactive and repressive approaches.”

Yet, others emphasized the importance of family in reducing the risks for youth to engage in violent behavior, whether it is in street gangs or extremist groups.

Richard Ramos of the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership, hit the right tone when he said “you cannot replace parents with programs.” I agree.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carlos A. Rosales is a Violence Prevention Specialist at USAID’s field office in Guatemala.

Community Empowerment in Guatemala Through Improved Literacy

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

In chasing the “American dream,” 21-year-old Guatemalan Andrés Ixcuná Mateo tried to cross the border into the United States twice but failed. He says the experience of being arrested by immigration authorities and spending several days in jail traumatized him.

But after returning to his hometown of San Andrés Sajcabajá, he began serving as a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project to help children learn to read in the Mayan language of K’iche. The experience of giving back to his community and helping preserve their indigenous culture helped him start to overcome the emotional and physical hardships he endured in his pursuit of a better life.

Now, he’s filled with a renewed hope for a better future in his hometown.

“I suffered very much, and I do not wish that on anyone,” Andrés said at a training session for volunteers in March, about one year later. “Now that I volunteer for this project, I have realized that one can do many good things and help boys and girls so that they can be someone important.”

Implemented by Save the Children with support from USAID, the three-year project Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos — which means “reading together, learning together” — aims to improve the readings skills of children in rural, indigenous communities in Guatemala and Peru in their mother tongue. In San Andrés Sajcabajá, the program includes community action activities to improve literacy in the the K’iche language, alongside in-school activities.

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

The project is part of USAID’s global education strategy to improve the readings skills of 100 million children in primary grades around the world. These skills are essential to students’ success in later grades and open doors to better economic opportunities once they become adults.

In the beginning, the project staff in San Andrés Sajcabajá had trouble recruiting volunteers. While searching for young people who might be willing to give up their time to help children learn to read outside of school hours, they contacted the principal of the community school, who referred them to Andrés–who had recently returned to his hometown.

Andrés, who was living at home and reflecting on what had happened to him, had graduated as a primary grade teacher before trying to emigrate. After meeting with the project staff, he agreed to join the team.

The Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project changed Andrés’s life and encouraged him to seek new horizons in order to improve himself and improve his family. After two volunteer trainings, he came to understand that it is possible to achieve “self‐improvement through education,” as he termed it.

Andrés is one of the volunteers who continues to be committed to the project, and this year he has taken up another year‐long commitment to lead community actions being implemented by the project in his village. He has also decided to enroll in the university to continue his studies.

Andrés told the 93 young colleagues assembled at the March training: “Take advantage of these spaces for learning, and the studies that your parents are facilitating. Do not think about migrating to another country, because in Guatemala there is space for you to act and seek your self‐improvement.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anibal Barrera Santay is a Community Action Officer with the USAID-funded program Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos (Reading Together, Learning Together) at Save the Children.

Slam Dunk: Empowering African Women Through Sports

 Astou Ndiaye shows off her ball-handling skills at last year’s launch of Live, Learn, and Play, a partnership between USAID and the National Basketball Association. / Zack Taylor, USAID

Astou Ndiaye shows off her ball-handling skills at last year’s launch of Live, Learn, and Play, a partnership between USAID and the National Basketball Association. / Zack Taylor, USAID

In Senegal, where I grew up, I guess you could say girls look up to me. After all, I’m 6-foot-3. I also won a professional basketball championship, worked my way through graduate school, and now manage a successful career while raising three kids.

Sure, I was a natural fit for basketball. But there was more to it than just the rebounds and my jump shot. The skills I learned playing the sport have led to my success off the court as much as on it.

I was back in Senegal last year to share this idea with hundreds of my compatriots at the launch of a new partnership that brings together the development expertise of USAID and the global cachet of the National Basketball Association.

The project — called Live, Learn and Play — provides opportunities few of us had when I was growing up. As an alumna of the WNBA, the women’s counterpart to the NBA, I was happy to support this new project, which uses basketball to train youth ages 13-18 in leadership, gender awareness and equality, and community participation.

Basketball changed my life. During the course of my career it opened doors, exposed me to new experiences, and taught me a lot about the world and myself.

But in any capacity–professional or not–getting involved in a sport means mastering skills, having the discipline to stay in school, keeping out of trouble, and leading a healthy lifestyle. These little things give young people the inspiration and ability to become leaders in any field. What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life.

Growing up in Dakar, I was fortunate to not lack the basics. However, with 20 siblings you can bet I learned to fight for my share. My mother always emphasized the importance of a good education–when I had to find a creative way to pay for schooling, those lessons in “fighting” paid off.

From the age of 13, I focused all of my strength and toughness on basketball. I practiced all the time: in the rain, and even through Ramadan, when I couldn’t get a drink of water until sunset. Luckily, some great coaches showed me that basketball was something positive that could lead to better things down the road. Mentoring is critical.

A few years later, I made Senegal’s national team. When I figured out that my game could open academic as well as professional doors, I took advantage of an athletic scholarship to go to university, where I graduated cum laude. After being drafted into the WNBA in 2003, I not only had the joy of having triplets, but also of being a part of the Detroit Shock championship team.

Girls learn basic basketball skills under the Live, Learn, and Play partnership with the NBA.“What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life,” former WNBA star Astou Ndiaye says. / Zack Taylor, USAID

Girls learn basic basketball skills under the Live, Learn, and Play partnership with the NBA.“What you learn on the court can apply to any aspect of life,” former WNBA star Astou Ndiaye says. / Zack Taylor, USAID

Basketball careers can’t last forever, so in 2008 I retired, became a coach and pursued a graduate degree in human resources. I’ve settled down now, and work with the state Health Care Authority in Oklahoma.

I know that my natural athletic gifts and supportive upbringing gave me better chances than many girls in Senegal. Still, I am convinced the principles I learned on the court led me to where I am today. If you understand early that hard work will pay off, everything else “comes around at the boards,” as they say in basketball. That means stay healthy, pay your dues, and know nothing will be handed to you.

Back in Dakar for the Live, Learn and Play launch, I had a chance to speak to the kids in the program. I told them that the odds of making it to the big leagues are tough, but that’s okay.  Dedication to basketball–at any level–teaches the toughness and resilience you need to find a pathway to a bright and successful future.

What’s great about Live, Learn and Play is the development of a network of skilled coaches, mentors and role models who will help thousands of kids become solid, productive citizens and active community members, whether they continue with sports or not.

This program can help empower girls in Africa, an issue close to my heart. Senegal is among the more forward-thinking countries in West Africa, but women there still face significant hurdles because of their gender.

Wherever I go, I encourage women and girls to push themselves to the forefront in whatever they do. Get out there and own it. Because when women get that, they are the real champions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Astou Ndiaye, a former star in the WNBA, is a human resources specialist at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and motivational speaker.

The Urgency of Education in South Sudan

Young boys sit with their rifles at a Feb. 10 ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor overseen by UNICEF and partners. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

Young boys sit with their rifles at a Feb. 10 ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor overseen by UNICEF and partners. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

While South Sudan’s warring parties have failed to make necessary compromises for peace after nearly 15 months of conflict, the people of South Sudan continue to suffer, including millions of children.

In addition to the many hardships South Sudan’s children are facing since civil war erupted in December 2013, the re-emergence of forced recruitment of child soldiers threatens to rob another generation of their potential after decades of war and lost opportunities.

UNICEF’s announcement that dozens of South Sudanese boys—some as young as 13—were abducted by an armed group while taking school exams sparked outrage. Hundreds may have been forcibly recruited as soldiers, constituting one of the gravest examples of the tragic toll this man-made crisis has had on civilians.

The children in Pibor, Jonglei State, surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a Feb. 10 ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction and supported by UNICEF. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

The children in Pibor, Jonglei State, surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a Feb. 10 ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction and supported by UNICEF. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

Recruitment of child soldiers is a tragic legacy of conflict that has gripped South Sudan since before Sudan’s independence in 1956. As of 2009, only 27 percent of the population and 16 percent of girls and women ages 15 and older were literate—despite the aspirations South Sudanese have long expressed for education and opportunities for youth

When I visited South Sudan in January, citizens pointed to education as a critical investment in the country’s future, even in the midst of violence. A 2013 public opinion poll found 68 percent of those surveyed across South Sudan weren’t satisfied with their government’s performance in providing education.

Yet the South Sudanese people’s hopes for greater investment in and protection of their children’s education are undermined by poor investments and continuing crises.  Thirty-five percent of teachers in South Sudan have only a primary level of education. And while South Sudan’s Ministry of Education recently reopened five teacher training institutes, officially 42 percent of the national budget goes to military and security sector costs.

An unidentified South Sudan armed group has abducted at least 89 boys, some as young as 13, from their homes in the north of the country, a UNICEF statement said on Feb. 21. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

An unidentified South Sudan armed group has abducted at least 89 boys, some as young as 13, from their homes in the north of the country, a UNICEF statement said on Feb. 21. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

USAID began building schools in southern Sudan in the late 1950s, not long after Sudan’s independence. Our support for education services in South Sudan started in 2002—despite the ongoing 1983-2005 civil war. This early efforthelped make learning possible in southern Sudan after two decades of war and displacement. Since then, USAID has supported more than a dozen substantial education projects in an independent South Sudan. Our current support includes six multi-year education projects with a total budget of more than $165 million.

Our assistance has included building or rehabilitating 140 primary schools and four secondary schools; awarding more than 9,000 scholarships to girls and disadvantaged boys; and providing radio literacy programs that have reached more than half a million children and older students who had missed out on formal schooling. We’ve helped train teachers and created policies regarding long-term education planning and delivery. Our determined commitment to support the South Sudanese in providing education has resulted in major progress: school enrollment more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, from 300,000 pupils to more than 1.4 million.

Despite these efforts and measurable progress, less than half of school-aged children in South Sudan were enrolled in school before the conflict erupted in December 2013. Since then, more than 2 million South Sudanese have been displaced by conflict, and some 400,000 students have dropped out of school. An estimated 70 percent of schools in the most conflict-affected states (Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity) were closed as of November 2014, and some 89 schools are currently occupied by fighting forces or internally displaced persons.

Given these developments, we refocused our educational activities to assist people wherever they are—educating children who have been displaced  as well as communities receiving large numbers of displaced children, establishing community schools in remote areas lacking educational access, increasing school security and safety and helping children who live in cattle camps overseeing their family livestock become literate in their mother tongue.

South Sudan will not be able to reach its potential until the country’s leaders end the conflict and commit to ensuring that their nation’s children have the opportunity to learn, protected from this senseless violence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linda Etim is deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Africa
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