Combining Football and Reproductive Health

Activist: Evan Odenyo.
Activist: Evan Odenyo.

Born and raised in Githurai Evans Odenyo was just like many young boys who enjoy playing football. He loved it so much that he even played for 'Bentos' one of the popular clubs in Githurai.

He was only 11 when he joined the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA). The association worked with young people by redefining football and using it as a platform to address serious social challenges that they face, particularly those associated with sexual and reproductive health.

Odenyo through hard work, discipline and patience has risen to the highest level of governance and is currently the executive chairperson of MYSA 2015/16. He is in charge of all MYSA activities which are sports and community service.

“When life gives you a challenge, you use what you have to deal with it. We only had football and through it, we have been addressing early pregnancies, early marriages, abortion, family planning, HIV/AIDS and many other sexual and reproductive health challenges,” he explains.

“We are turning our football stadiums into youth friendly spaces to help us cope better with our sexuality,” he says.

Adding that the message has not always been enough and there is need for other stakeholders such as the government and the private sector to come in.

“You can tell youths to take up family planning services for instance but they are not always available therefore lacking continuity. You go to a facility and the pill you use is out of supply,” he expounds.

Currently MYSA has 27,000 registered members in 16 zones in Nairobi including Githurai, Kariobangi, Kayole, Dandora, Eastleigh and Baba Dogo.

Members are both male and female. Anyone within this 16 zones can be a member of MYSA, joining is free but to be a registered member you must be, or have been either a football player or coach.

“If you are in Kayole for instance, you go to their stadium which is called Calvary, you will find the MYSA zonal coordinator who gives you a team list from which you chose, you register as a player or you can form your own team,” he says.

Though registering is free, MYSA has many well wishers and projects that sustain it. They have a gym, a cafeteria and a borehole that bring in money to support the association.

Odenyo’s goal at MYSA-a youth led, youth owned association- is to ensure that sexual and reproductive health services are available, accessible and affordable for young people.

Through football, there are many opportunities to address youths since a zone like Githurai can play about 200 games in a year.

“People assume that young people know about their reproductive health but in real sense they do not. We are pushing for youth friendly services but also for those with comprehensive information to go to schools and share it,” he expounds.

He says that when young people do not have somebody to lead them, they end up relying on each other for information.

“As a result, I have been doing a lot of community dialogue with youths and encouraging them to take on family planning,” he says.

Odenyo says that young people below the age of 24 years have been neglected hence the need for youths to stand with other youths in addressing challenges that continue to stand between them and their goals in life.

As a young peer educator in family planning, Odenyo discovered that young people are more likely to engage in lessons about contraception and family planning when they are in a comfortable, welcoming environment.

Consequently, MYSA carries out outreach programs through various ways, the most popular being organizing tournaments but rather than playing to win a trophy, the youths play to win a sexual and reproductive health theme.

One of the themes that have been played for in the past is the ‘Zip it of Play Safe’ laying emphasis on the need to practice safe sex or to abstain from sex all together.

“As long as youths are playing football with an awareness of why they are doing it, this encourages youths to be even more competitive and while doing so, the message always gets home,” he says.

MYSA does not work alone though “we have partnered with Mathare Youths Empowerment and together, every first Tuesday of the month youths are offered free HIV/AIDS testing and of course counselling.”

“Family planning services are also offered and many youth between the ages of 16 to 24 come for HIV testing, we are working on increasing the number of days by having more trained counsellors.”

He says that the environment is youth friendly and the turnout has been impressive, both male and female youths have been receiving the services they need.

Young girls have been dropping out of school and MYSA has been on their trail “providing information and encouraging them to either abstain or practice safe sex. This way, they will be able to stay in school.”

Using his knowledge and experience as a football coach, he has therefore continued to integrate sports with lessons about health and family planning.

“We also look out for the children in MYSA. If a child is facing any form of violation, we intervene. We also target those with disability and have special games for them,” Odenyo adds.