In honor of International Women’s Day, we wanted to introduce you to one of our favorite fearless women. Monique lives in Lusaka—Zambia’s capital is a sprawling urban hub she describes as “the New York” of her country—where she works to educate young women about the benefits of contraception.
Monique’s role as a teen connector for Marie Stopes International (MSI) is part of the Divas initiative that IDEO.org co-designed with the organization; these judgement-free, teen-friendly sites welcome adolescents to ask questions and receive services. By equipping teens with information about, and access to, birth control methods, she and her team of fellow connectors and specially trained nurses are able to open new lines of communication around a tough, but all-too-common subject: Teen pregnancy.
During a visit to our sunny San Francisco studio last week, we chatted with Monique about why knowledge is power, why taking control of your body can have a transformative effect on the rest of your life, and the importance of being bold.
I had a career as a flight attendant before I fell pregnant, after that my priority was to take care of my daughter so I quit. At that same time I became a very young “grandmother;” I use this term because my niece also fell pregnant, so my daughter became an aunt when she was born.
I love my daughter dearly, and her presence completely changed the trajectory of my life. I understood then that girls needed to be informed—about their options for birth control, and their bodies, and their reproductive health—in order to make positive choices.
I wanted to find a way to help reduce teen pregnancies, because they so often encouraged school dropouts and impacted the lives of so many people I knew. I heard good things about the MSI program and the work they were doing, applied to be a Teen Connector, and was accepted. Many (but not all) of our connectors are “happy customers”—girls who received services, and decided to join.
Generally, girls in Lusaka and other urban areas girls feel like going to health sites is only for when you’re sick; for information about sex and sexual health, they prefer to talk to their friends or look on the internet for information as health sites have a reputation for turning away unmarried girls. They’re definitely not talking to their parents, who are thinking: “You’re not sleeping with boys. You’re perfect; a good girl.” They want to keep that image intact.
As teen connectors, we’re mobilizers. We canvass on foot at “hot spots” in Lusaka, like marketplaces, sports games, and schools, and we’ll also host outdoor events, like football matches or retreats where we can discreetly talk to young women. From there, the word gets out.
It’s funny, because it definitely depends. Sometimes I’ll find a loud group who will pretty much follow me back to the clinic. Other times there are individuals who will pretend they’re not interested, but might show up at the Diva Center later by themselves.
Diva Site are designed to be welcoming; we want everyone who visits to feel comfortable immediately. They’re colorful places; we have nail polish and makeup on the table when you walk in, and pictures of the aspirational Diva characters on the wall.
We assure the girls that they can open up to us, and to the nurses, and then we talk them through the varieties of birth control that are available. This includes long-acting methods, like implants and IUDs, that are typically way less well-known than condoms.
There are so many: Some girls believe that having sex standing up won’t get you pregnant, or that jumping three times after sex means you won’t get pregnant; but one of the biggest misconceptions is that using contraception will lead to infertility. The good thing is that all of the teen connectors are using some kind of birth control, some of us have kids and others don’t, so we can all speak from different experience. The teen connectors who don’t have kids are good examples of how safe and effective contraception can be.
Everyone leaves with an appointment card, so it’s not like we see them once and never again. They’ll come back and let us know what’s happening. And we do have so many satisfied clients! They do a great job of spreading the word.
This pretty much describes me. It actually takes a lot of boldness to stand up and let people know what you believe in.
Girls can be quite vulnerable; teen connectors and nurses at the Diva sites understand their needs, and how important it is for them to know that there are people out there who are actually listening, and actually care. When young women can make decisions for themselves—not because of their parents, or anyone else—they're empowered to make informed decisions [about contraception], they're pretty much empowered in every other aspect of their life. Once they’re able to make informed choices, it can change their lives forever.