Mr. Jeff Yussuf Ayami
Executive Secretary, Zambia Interfaith Networking Group on HIV/AIDS (ZINGO), June 2007
Mr. Jeff Yussuf Ayami has worked at the Zambia Interfaith Networking Group on HIV/AIDS (ZINGO) since 2001 and is currently Executive Secretary. His background is in business management and he is also a trained Islamic theologian. His work with ZINGO focuses on mobilizing financial and human resources for communities to respond to the social and economic impact of HIV/AIDS. He is a qualified facilitator and works with many communities to improve the skills of project managers. He advocates a holistic approach to HIV/AIDS, including the need to address human rights and governance issues.
We asked Mr. Ayami to discuss the efforts to produce guidelines to increase young people’s access to reproductive health information and services in Zambia.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What prompted you to work with faith leaders and young people?
Mr. Ayami: That is a very good question, but before I answer your question allow me to thank you for according ZINGO an opportunity to interact with you and your audience around the subject of youth reproductive health.
Coming to your question, as you well know, a lot of negative things have been said about the contribution of religion to the AIDS problem in Zambia. Many people have concentrated very much on the negative things, such as their views on condoms or their judgmental attitude towards people living with HIV, etc., and overlooked the many positive contributions the church has made in the fight against HIV and AIDS. The positives include the influence religion and faith leaders have on our communities. Nobody has so much access and influence to people in the communities as the faith leaders. It is this that prompted us to work with faith leaders.
Regarding the reasons for working with youth, we all know that our population in Zambia is heavily populated with the youth. They are the majority and account for about 60 percent of the entire population. If you consider that this number represents our future leaders, then it makes so much sense that our energies should be directed towards protecting this important resource for our country’s development.
Youth Policy Toolkit: Tell us a little bit about the Zambia Interfaith Networking Group on HIV/AIDS.
Mr. Ayami: Well, the Zambia Interfaith Networking Group on HIV/AIDS, ZINGO in short, is a network of the major faith bodies in Zambia. These include the different brands of Christianity—Catholic, Protestant, Evangelicals and more recently the independents who are basically a break away from the Evangelicals, the Muslims, Bahá’í, and the Hindu community. The network was established in 1997 but actually was formalized in 2003. The network has its own secretariat that is mandated to coordinate and monitor the faith-based response to HIV and AIDS within its members for and on behalf of the National AIDS Council of Zambia, which is a government creation.
ZINGO works through the faith mother bodies and, therefore, its work is virtually everywhere across the country. Our thrust is mainly HIV and AIDS.
Youth Policy Toolkit: Why did you feel there was a need for policy guidelines specific to young people?
Mr. Ayami: As I have stated earlier on, one of our mandates is to coordinate the FBO response to HIV and AIDS interventions. What we have realized is that whilst many of the FBOs are engaged in very encouraging interventions on HIV and AIDS targeting the youth, many of these interventions are driven by emotion and not by guided and proven strategies. This has resulted in this action being uninformed with realities on the ground. Just to give you an example, while the church talks about abstinence among the youth, the reality is that many youths within and outside the church are freely engaging in sex. Some of these youths might even be holding influential positions within the church structures. The church has not done much with regard to ensuring that the call for abstinence is matched with a suitable environment that promotes abstinence or addresses the sexual developments and needs taking place within the youth as they grow and interact with youths from the wider community.
Another example could be the issue of confidentiality. Our culture dictates that sexual issues are too sensitive to be discussed by one’s own parents. Previously, young people would turn to grandparents for counsel. Lately, and with the break up of such arrangements due to ‘westernization’ of our societies, faith leaders are among the few points of counsel available for our youth. However, faith leaders have not lived up to their responsibility because they have failed to instill confidence in the youth that approach them. As a result, youth are now getting counsel and misinformation from some of their peers who they trust in so much.
All of the things mentioned above prompted us to enlist faith leaders as our entry point to provide accurate reproductive health information and services to youth so as to prevent them from getting early pregnancies, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What do you expect to come out of your efforts to develop the policy guidelines?
Mr. Ayami: It is our hope that resulting from our efforts, we can get a generation of youth that are very concerned with their sexual well-being and general wellness. Similarly, we do hope we can have capacity within our faith institutions to provide and help young people with information and services that are useful for their own sexual health.
Youth Policy Toolkit: Can you share any successful strategies or approaches you used in developing the policy guidelines?
Mr. Ayami: One of the most successful strategies was using the youth themselves to develop the guidelines. This not only meant that the guidelines were owned by the youth but also that the contents were informed by their own experiences with regard to issues of sex.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What indications do you have that the policy guidelines have been a success?
Mr. Ayami: The overwhelming response their endorsement received by the religious community and the faith leaders. You need to note that initially the Catholics did not want to involve themselves with the project, but because the manner in which the guidelines were developed did not intimate any coercion of any particular group to do what they were not comfortable with, they signed the document, which for us was a major success.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What have been some of the challenges in advocating for endorsement of the guidelines by the various faith groups?
Mr. Ayami: One of the major challenges we faced as mentioned earlier was the suspicion by the Catholic faith that promoting youth reproductive health was more like promoting usage of condoms, abortion, etc. This nearly resulted in them not wanting to be part of the whole project in the first instance. However, their participation in the actual development of the guidelines as well as the strategy to focus the guidelines to deal more with issues of processes and actual guidelines as opposed to services meant that their fears were allayed.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What advice would you give to other practitioners undertaking a similar policy process?
Mr. Ayami: First, consultation is critical. It cannot be overemphasized. Because the subject of reproductive health is sensitive and usually misunderstood, faith organizations involved in the process should be consulted and be part of decision making all the way.
Secondly, it is better that when such an undertaking is considered, the focus should be much on issues such as mobilization and referrals as opposed to actual service delivery. Determining what kind of youth reproductive health services would be provided should be left entirely up to each particular faith group. Now I don’t know if I am clear on that point and perhaps let me use an illustration to articulate myself. We should not go to a faith organization and dictate to them the kind of services they should provide to young people, rather make it known to them the kind of challenges youth face sexually and the need for a faith group to develop a mechanism through which youth sexuality and their reproductive health concerns can be addressed. This could entail them putting in place someone specifically designated to answer frequently asked questions on biological developments in youth or changes in feelings and how to deal with them. This could also entail linking faith groups to resources on reproductive health, including basic facts about HIV and AIDS. However, what we should not do is to ask or coerce a faith group to start providing RH services. This should stem from a need, their need. This should entirely be left up to the particular faith group to decide which services they would provide that fit within the perimeters of their faith.
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Contact Information for Mr. Ayami:
Name: Mr. Jeff Yussuf Ayami
Title: Executive Secretary
Organization: Zambia Interfaith Networking Group on HIV/AIDS (ZINGO)
Mailing Address: 5505 Msanzara Rd., Kalundu, P.O. Box 30360, Lusaka. Zambia