Charity really does begin at home for international youth activist Stephen Chukwumah. After gaining exposure working for international bodies, he decided to start an NGO in South-East Nigeria.
Stephen, 24, grew up in Lagos. He always had a knack for reading, asking questions and finding out things. A graduate of English and Literature from the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma Edo State, Stephen’s inborn curiosity has led him to high offices within and outside Nigeria.
Stephen’s history as a youth advocate can be traced to his third year in high school where he was trained as a peer educator by the National Youth Aids Programme; a scheme funded by the Lagos State government. Subsequently, he was part of another training organised by the Nigerian Union of Teachers, Lagos state chapter. As a young person having to speak to people his own age about HIV/AIDS, the message was very basic – “HIV/AIDS is real. Don’t stigmatise against people living with it.”
When Stephen was 18, a friend of his came from the UK to set up an NGO and invited Stephen to join the board. Since then, he has gone on to amass a wealth of experience not many can boast of.
With this exposure from the NGO, he became involved in international work even though he lived in Nigeria at the time. As a member of the Youth Coalition in Canada, he went on to serve as an international youth advisor to the United Nations Fund Population Agency (UNFPA) and also as an international advisor for Rutgers Nisso through their Youth Incentives Program in the Netherlands.
Stephen has a diploma from an international training program on sexual health and human rights in Sweden and South Africa; organized by RFSU/RFSL and sponsored by the Swedish government. He works as a steering committee member for the HIV Young Leaders Fund and is currently a youth activist for Advocates for Youth in Washington D.C., USA.
While Stephen jetted round the world contributing to far reaching policy decisions, it struck him that these opportunities which he was canvassing for were not available to the youth back home. Stephen felt that young people in the East should have more access to sexual health facilities.
In 2007, he set up the Improved Youth Health Initiative, an NGO registered in Nigeria and funded by the MTV Staying Alive Foundation. The initiative is aimed at providing comprehensive sexuality education to the most at risk population (sex workers, people living with AIDS and the LGBTQ community).
In the beginning, the organisation limited its activities to Anambra state but has now expanded to all the five states in the South East as well as Edo state; where they currently run a program with the Society for Family Health, Population Council and the Centre For the Rights to Health.
Stephen believes that for any HIV/AIDS programme to succeed, it must be based on comprehensive sexuality education. He insists that young people will listen to anything that is youth friendly; structured in a way that the young people can connect with. To achieve their mission of providing sexual and reproductive health education for the most at risk population, Stephen and his team use social activities in free and safe spaces. The relaxed atmosphere, free food, drinks and music set the mood for a few hours of educational talks. There are also opportunities for free confidential counselling offered either through the phone or emails.
Improved Youth Health Initiative isn’t just focused on HIV/AIDS. They also educate the youth on other sexually transmitted diseases, reproductive health issues, personal hygiene as well as provide information and services.
One of the most absurd things Stephen has heard in the course of organising health talks was about a young women who believed that the way to terminate an unplanned pregnancy was by drinking hot Fanta. His job is to gently but firmly correct such ideas.
We asked Stephen the trick to getting these maligned minorities to open up on sexuality and sex-related issues and he replied, “The rule is don’t judge. Always have an open mind dialogue, leaving aside culture and religion. When people feel that you can relate to their stories, they are encouraged to talk.”
We asked Stephen what he felt people were most shocked by when they found out about his work in sexual and reproductive health and he confirmed that Nigeria was a difficult place to work in such an area. “In fact, the biggest taboo when you talk about sex in Nigeria is sex itself. And then, when you talk about sexuality, people think of you as being a perv”, he said.
However, Stephen isn’t bothered by attitudes of people who coat irrationality and ignorance in ultra-conservatism. Stephen’s motivation comes from within. He told us, “I am driven by the need to create a change; to change something about somewhere, the need to fill a gap. My purpose is to contribute something meaningful on planet earth.”
Stephen prefers to measure his success by the impact his initiative is making. Improved Youth Health Initiative currently holds trainings every four months. Although smaller gatherings are held to commemorate days like World Aids Day, and International Human Rights Day.
He sees a future Nigeria where people are more open-minded and where everyone matters. A Nigeria that is free of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Improved Youth Health Initiative is currently opening a community centre in Enugu. The community centre will be open on a daily basis for walk in consultations. However, counselling will only take place on specified days due to funding and personnel constraints.
Improved Youth Health Initiative welcomes volunteers who are willing to be a part of their project. For more information, contact them firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow Stephen on twitter @pencilpies