SAYWHAT Reclaiming Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for Young People in Zimbabwe’s Tertiary Institutions

Dominica Dhakwa
Publication Date


This 40-page case study discusses the experience of the Students And Youth Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Zimbabwe, which the document says is a role model of an effective youth-led empowerment initiative which demonstrates impressive levels of youth participation. SAYWHAT was formed out of the findings of a group discussion amongst university students addressing the socio-economic challenges confronting them at the time due to macro level economic challenges. In 2003, the discussion team evolved into a youth initiative, progressively identifying with young people and gaining the respect of development stakeholders. The key factor of their success, according the case study, is that it was an initiative by youths themselves, therefore its messages and objectives resonated with young people.
According to the case study, the organisation has managed to position itself as a strategic youth organisation and has been co-opted into strategic national platforms, in the process gaining an important footing which allows the organisation to influence policy review and development, and to amplify the voices of young people. SAYWHAT has thus far made considerable progress in addressing youth-specific Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and HIV issues through adopting young people-centred innovative interventions.
The report outlines elements that make the SAYWHAT programme conspicuous amongst youth-targeted health interventions:

  • Speaking the Language of Youth: Ensuring Relevance and Responsiveness - The concept of a youth-led and youth-run organisation has confirmed long-held beliefs in the positive impact of peer education interventions. The use of mobile telecommunications as an information dissemination tool by SAYWHAT has been well received by students who rated the service as one of their preferred ways of receiving information as it enables them to quickly share this information with sexual partners and others, thereby generating and facilitating discussion.
  • Blending into College Structures: Building Community Ownership - The student structures created at thirty tertiary institutions in Zimbabwe have become synonymous with the dissemination of timely, youth-friendly, and appropriate information and services. SAYWHAT has created linkages with other services offered to students by tertiary institutions such as college clinics, student body activities and student orientation programmes amongst others. Through SAYWHAT lobbying college authorities, SRHR has been included in most college syllabi, with positive effects on the organisation's programmes.
  • Low Cost, High Coverage, High Impact - Student networks created through SAYWHAT’s support enable wider student reach at a minimum cost. With an annual budget of USD240,000, SAYWHAT is able to support and directly reach 4,000 students in tertiary institutions and more than 5,000 students indirectly. The organisation has a database of 4,000 students who it actively interacts with through its activities and text message communication initiative.
  • Tapping Into Existing Knowledge Sources and Services: Integration and Comprehensiveness - SAYWHAT partnered with SAfAIDS to implement an innovative gender programme called 'Changing the River's Flow' (CTRF). Through this project which challenges gender dynamics in a cultural context, SAYWHAT has consolidated its gender-related methodologies as this project introduced SAYWHAT stakeholders and target audiences to a community dialogue methodology that has increased debate and discussion on the inter-linkages between gender, HIV, and culture. SAYWHAT has also collaborated with SAfAIDS in advocacy for universal access to SRHR service.

The SAYWHAT initiative has identified lessons that can be used to improve future youth-focused SRHR and HIV programmes:

  • Mentoring Youth Organisations for Success - The organisation’s survival as a youth organisation lies in the nurturing and mentoring that the founders received through the auspices of Community Working Group on Health (CWGH).
  • Generating Capacity for Youth to Lead in Their Own Interventions - Generating the capacity of young people to respond to their own challenges is more empowering than providing services to young people. Capacity development should focus on both beneficiaries and youth leaders driving the intervention in order to respond effectively to the dynamism of young people’s needs.
  • Integration of Youth Initiatives into Existing Interventions - This strategy also helps to provide an existing firm foundation from which to launch interventions, thereby maximising the impact of the intervention within a relatively short period of time. SAYWHAT designed interventions to integrate with and enhance services and products, for example, health care, entertainment, student orientation, student union activities, and curriculum which were already provided to students at their tertiary institutions, achieving some impact.
  • Addressing underlying Causes of Youth vulnerabilities – Whilst accommodation and transport presented themselves as key challenges faced by young people working with SAYWHAT, there was a realisation that the challenges went beyond what could be seen on the surface.
  • Creating Networks for Cost Effectiveness and Sustainability - The use of information communication technology (computers, mobile phones, and sms) has proved a cost-cutting, yet highly effective measure for SAYWHAT because project leaders are able to report progress and challenges in a timely and efficient manner without SAYWHAT diverting funds from programmes to the logistics of physically visiting each college.
  • Integration of HIV into SRHR to Address Underlying Causes of Youth Vulnerability - HIV may manifest itself as an obvious cause for youth vulnerability, but continued analysis of the challenges faced by youth enabled SAYWHAT to identify limited SRHR knowledge as another cause of vulnerability. By linking the two, SAYWHAT was able to adequately address the underlying causes of youth vulnerability.

The report makes several recommendations for future programming. In order to effectively collect data for tracking the impact of projects against set objectives and for informing the future strategic direction of the project, the SAYWHAT implementing team will need to focus on strengthening the monitoring, evaluation and reporting system. The network of students created to support this project and collaboration with college authorities provides opportunities for enhancing data collection. This needs to be supported by building the capacity of implementers, including staff, volunteers, and collaborating university and college staff in monitoring and evaluation and reporting. As well, without a strong component targeting the inclusion of communities, the intervention may appear isolated from communities who are custodians of the target group, so increasing community involvement is a good strategy to garner support for sustained behaviour change. There is also a need to support the establishment of support groups for students living with HIV at tertiary institutions as a way to both provide incentives for disclosure and a strategy to sustain behaviour change.


SAfAIDS website on May 30 2013