The Health Economics and HIV and AIDS Research Division (HEARD) has recently hosted the official launch of a flagship project which aims to link policy and programming through research for at risk populations in the SADC region. Key populations include members of the LGBTI community and other at risk youth.

The project, created under a mandate by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ultimately seeks to ensure the removal of barriers to access in health care systems in Africa, those that are both systemically, and socially entrenched, particularly for young key populations in the SADC countries. HEARD has been awarded this significant research grant to conduct operational research on young key populations in five major SADC countries which are; Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Together with our project partner AMSHeR, HEARD will seek to progress the current knowledge base of research of key populations in the SADC countries, whilst strengthening each country’s own capacity for critical reflection and policy implementation.

Bringing the key project staff of UNDP and AMSHeR (African Men for Sexual Health and Rights)  as well as a core team of HEARD researchers together at its offices on the Westville Campus of UKZN, HEARD launched what is intended to be one of the most impactful and progressive research projects in the region.

Over the next four years HEARD will embark on targeted research with the goal of strengthening policy environments in specific countries in the SADC (Southern African Development Community). Various pieces of research will be conducted in-country, as well as across countries covering key thematic areas that concern young key populations, such as exclusion, gender identity, risk behavior, violence and service barriers.

Rationale

Young key populations in Southern Africa face significant barriers to accessing HIV and SRH services. Many of these barriers originate from country laws and policies that are punitive, discriminatory, conflicting and restrictive. Criminalisation of same sex relationships, age restrictive laws prohibiting young people’s access to HIV testing, contraceptives, abortion and SRH services (or only with parental consent) and restrictive policies on provision of SRH commodities in schools and prisons.

In order to improve HIV/SRH outcomes in young key populations, HIV/SRH legal, policy and strategy environments for young key populations need to be strengthened and monitored. This project seeks to support national governments in reviewing and reforming country laws and policies and to facilitate citizen input and accountability for implementation. The underlying theory of change is that effective and sustainable responses for HIV/SRH will require a reduction of the stigma associated with HIV/SRH and most affected populations, a legal environment that is gender-sensitive and that enables access to and use of key prevention, treatment services and commodities and the political will to include and protect marginalized (young) key populations in policy and governance.

The long-term objective of the project is to improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes for young key populations in SADC countries. At medium-term, the project seeks to strengthen HIV/SRH related rights of young key populations in law, policy and strategy in five SADC Countries. The project focuses on young sex workers of all genders, young men who have sex with men, young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, young people who inject drugs and young prisoners.

HEARD’S Role

Under Professor Poku, a HEARD core team of highly qualified and experienced researchers will undertake baseline studies in each of the five countries, collaborating with local research institutions and project partners on the ground. One of the objectives of this baseline is to identify research gaps as well as the most pertinent questions for the operational research component of the project. The operational research will take place in each of the five countries on context-specific questions, whilst cross-cutting themes will serve as a basis for cross-country research and comparative analyses. As this type of research on young key populations in the five countries is very limited, HEARD seeks to proactively share the knowledge and resources derived from this project – as well as other ongoing research projects of HEARD on SRHR – through a portal with a wider audience. Its core researchers will contribute to the portal on a regular basis, aiming to build up country profiles of the SRHR and young key populations contexts that scientists, policy makers, non-governmental organizations, but also students, can use to rapidly increase their knowledge on these issues.

HEARD will make more information on this portal available in due course.