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Why it’s time to start valuing youth peer educators more

Hester Phillips

09 September 2022

The impact of youth peer educators goes far beyond health outcomes – yet their contributions often go unrecognised and undervalued

Two young women stand looking at each other
Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply health status or behaviour. Photo credit: iStock/MichaelUtech

An evaluation of a sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programme for young people in Kenya suggests peer educators are going above and beyond in their work. Is it time to change how programmes measure their contributions?

What is the research about?

The impact of youth peer educators. These are young people who provide other young people with information, education and services.

This study examined Get Up, Speak Out for Youth Rights! in Kisumu and Siaya Counties, Kenya. Researchers spoke to peer educators and programme participants (aged 18–24), programme managers, health professionals and officials.

Why is this research important?

Peer education is often used in SRHR programmes for young people. But its effectiveness is often only measured by its impact on young people’s SRHR knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

What did they find out?

Peer educators’ contributions were measured in two out of five programme areas. But this was the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of peer educators’ actual impact.

The first area where peer educators’ contributions were measured was the increased use of SRHR education and information. Even here, peers contributed more than expected. Many acted as role models and life coaches. They took on personal responsibility for the well-being of other young people. They provided information beyond SRHR topics. Young people, parents and community leaders asked them for advice, often outside working hours.

The second area that was measured was young people’s increased use of SRH services. Some peer educators were trained to provide some SRH services. Others referred young people to youth-friendly services and went with them to facilities. Peer educators also visited facilities to check the quality of services.

Wider impact

Study participants reported that peer educators contributed to many other areas. These included:

  • decreasing unsafe abortion
  • reducing unwanted pregnancies
  • creating SRHR-related social media content
  • changing cultural beliefs
  • reducing school dropouts
  • ensuring SRHR products were available
  • reducing parent-child conflict.

Peer educators’ most significant, unmeasured contributions happened in three areas.

1. Community support

Peer educators made implementing organisations more visible in communities. Their contributions led adult community members to be more accepting of young people’s rights. They supported parents, church leaders, teachers, police officers, local committees and others to collaborate. And they supported young people to be heard in decision-making spaces. They also made sure implementing organisations met the needs of young people.

2. Gender

Peer educators’ contributions led to girls’ education becoming more valued and it increased acceptance of adolescent girls’ desire to have relationships. Peer educators also increased positive views of gender diversity. They worked with chiefs to report sexual violence to the police. One peer educator worked with county officials on a new gender-based violence policy.

3. Economic empowerment

Peer educators created economic opportunities for themselves and other young people. Some peer educators formed small groups called chamas. These groups provided community welfare services, saving schemes and business support.

What does this mean for HIV services?

Peer educators have a wide-ranging impact on the lives of young people. So the way programmes measure their contributions must change to better reflect this. This means collecting data on peer educators’ contributions beyond narrow health-related outcomes.

Peer educators also need to be more recognised and valued for their contributions. They should be fairly paid for all the work they do. They should also get training and development opportunities, and regular management support.

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