SAY WHAT empowering youth for health advocacy

A group photo of delegates during the 13th saywhat national students conference

By Khumbulani Muleya

In a momentous three-day event, the Students And Youth Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT) recently concluded its 13th National Students Conference hosted at the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa)) training centre in Belvedere, Harare

Themed 'We RISE: Amplifying Health Actions by Students and Young People,' the conference brought together a diverse array of students, stakeholders, government officials, and international partners to discuss crucial health topics that involve the youth.

The conference, spanning from December 1 to 3, featured a dynamic line-up of activities, including panel discussions, pitch presentations, symposiums, and a marathon that took place on the last day.

Each day delved into different topics such as ‘Bridging Education Divides: Advancing SDG 4 in Rural and Farming Communities’, ‘Nexus between student’s health and education outcomes’, and ‘Nurturing growth beyond SRH' among others.

Notable attendees included the Swedish ambassador, Per Lindgärde, and representatives from the ministries of Health and Child Care, as well as Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science, and Technology Development.

SAYWHAT's regional partners from Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi, along with students from various provinces, junior parliamentarians, councillors, representatives from private and state universities including the University of Botswana were also in attendance.

In his opening remarks, Ambassador Lindgärde highlighted the ongoing efforts by the Embassy of Sweden in Zimbabwe to support partners addressing health challenges faced by students and young people.

“Conferences like this remind us that we collectively need to continue to address this important subject. Young people are still growing up in a society where preventable and treatable health problems like HIV Aids, early pregnancy, unsafe sex, depression, injury, and violence remain a daily threat to their health, wellbeing, and life opportunities,” he said adding that Sweden is committed to the human rights for all people including the rights to sexual and reproduction health.

“We acknowledge that there can be no valid or effective health response in Zimbabwe without the inclusion of young people in their diversity,” he stated.

The conference's first day included the commemoration of World Aids Day, featuring a candlelight memorial and the screening of a short film shedding light on the challenges faced by young people, including gender-based violence and substance abuse.

Day two saw focused group discussions on topics such as bridging education divides, youth and tuberculosis, and strengthening the child justice system.

Notably, the day also marked SAYWHAT's two-decade journey with a celebration and awards night themed ‘connecting communities and transforming the lives of youths and students in Zimbabwe and beyond’.

 The event was meant to recognise the organisation's achievements in championing sexual and reproductive health in Zimbabwe and beyond.

SAYWHAT, founded in 2003 by Jimmy Wilford and his colleague Jabusile Shumba, has played a pivotal role in expanding the youth voice and providing a platform for leadership and talent incubation.

The organisation, relies on funding from development partners, and engages in non-clinical perspectives on public health especially among young people by bringing together students from different tertiary institutions.

Wilford, who is the current executive director told the Standard that biannually they host the Southern African Regional Students and Youth conference, which is a gathering of students within the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).

Student representatives from these countries meet to address sexual and reproductive health challenges collaboratively.

 “We are now in the process of planning for the fifth edition of the Southern African Regional Student and Youth Conference that is going to be hosted by the University of Botswana in Botswana from July 17 to 19 next year, we have started planning for the edition,” Wilford said.

In addition to its advocacy efforts, SAYWHAT boasts a research cohort made up of young researchers who are collaborating with local professors and academics to publish their research papers.

A booklet written by the first group of student researchers and supported by Professor Matunhu from the Midlands State University and Professor Tsvere from Chinhoyi University was launched during the conference and covers ten chapters on topics ranging from substance abuse to mental health, sexual harassment, youth involvement in programming, and social determinants of health.

“As SAY WHAT we are inclined to strengthen our programming so that we do evidence-based programming.

“Besides being assisted in developing their research skills, the students are also assisting in strengthening evidence in some areas of interest” Wilford added.

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