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In a country where family planning is accessible to married couples only, Safe Spaces for youth are an introduction to reproductive health and rights, counselling, access to contraceptives and consultations with doctors.

Azlifa is just like any Maldivian young woman her age: she pursued her studies, found a suitable job, got married and is now expecting her first child. At the age of 26 Azlifa is also, unlike most youth her age, the champion of reproductive health education in a country where sex is taboo.

“My friend’s story inspired me to become a reproductive health educator”

Her friend was in grade 9 and pregnant at the age of 15. At the time 11-year-old Azlifa found people’s behavior rather odd: “she dropped out of school, her family was very upset, everyone on the island - it was a very small community - would gossip about her but nobody would mention the boyfriend”, she recalls.

(Azlifa, aged 26, is a reproductive health champion in Maldives. Her job consists in ensuring that every individual has the right to make their own choices about their sexual and reproductive health)

“I was determined to empower other girls, I didn’t want any of my relatives to go through what my friend did”, she remembers having decided, “so one day I googled ‘period’ [she laughs] and started educating my sisters”.

Azlifa is a reproductive health educator at Society for Health Education (SHE), currently the only facility in Maldives that provides sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services to young people.

“When it comes to preventing unwanted pregnancies, information is the key. That also applies to sexually transmitted diseases. I am very proud to create and provide safe space sessions for young people where they can come and talk about these issues.”

This year alone, SHE and UNFPA organized 6 Safe Spaces for youth having reached 180 youth so far. By the end of 2018, the partnership is expected to have reached a total of 500 young people across Maldives.

Although sex outside wedlock is considered a sin and a crime in Maldives, studies indicate that youth are generally sexually active before marriage. According to the Women Health & Life Experiences 2007, 85% of individuals between ages 15-17 agreed to have consensual sex.

However important in this context, SRH services are not provided to the respective age group in a way they would feel comfortable seeking the services. It also appears that a good segment of the society still feel reluctant to educate youngsters on SHR.

“At SHE we provide sexual and reproductive health information and services such as family planning, STIs and HIV prevention, pre-natal care and comprehensive sexuality education for young people”, says Azlifa.

UNFPA and SHE are partnering since early 2000s to deliver SRH information and services to promote young people’s sexual and reproductive health, with the understanding that young women and men must be informed and empowered to decide if they wish to have children, when and how many, and also to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

Together, UNFPA and SHE developed Siththaa App, a user friendly mobile application in the hope of establishing a youth friendly platform with pertinent information on ASRH, to lessen the taboo and create an environment where a larger number of youth can advocate for SRH rights.

(photo of siththaa sticker with Android and Apple info)

To mark this long standing partnership, in April this year UNFPA and SHE formally established a partnership to expand Safe Space programmes to reach young people with reproductive health information.

On the occasion, UNFPA Country Director, Ritsu Nacken, defended that “as UNFPA and SHE share many decades of bringing SRH information and services to youth in the Maldives, together we can effectively ensure that in the future every individual has the right to make their own choices about their sexual and reproductive health”.

From SHE, Asim Mohamed as the Chairperson, said that the agreement will strengthen the “accessibility of adolescent friendly health information services”.

Founded in 1988, SHE is proactive in identifying and addressing crucial health and social issues in the Maldives. Azlifa is one of the many young women and men trained in partnership with UNFPA to become a reproductive health educator and work alongside her peers.

“I married four years ago but only now I decided to have my first child. I hope that my daughter’s generation will have it easier when it comes to access reproductive health and rights”, she says.

As for her friend, for many years she occupied Azlifa’s thoughts until the day she invited her friend to meet her at SHE: “I told her everything I had learned about unwanted pregnancies. She is married now and I know that she, as many other girls in Maldives, would never become a teen mother if she had had access to sexual and reproductive health information and services”.


Text & Photos ©Tatiana Almeida/UNFPA Maldives