HEARD embarks on an extensive research project on young key populations in SADC countries, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights. 

We’ve successfully obtained a large research grant to conduct operational research on young key populations in Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The research is embedded in a larger project that aims to strengthen the legal and policy environment for these groups in order to reduce stigma and discrimination of young key populations and improve their access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. Whilst the five countries will feature prominently, the project will engage the SADC region as a whole in its endeavors. HEARD hosted the official launch of the project, bringing the key project staff of UNDP and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) as well as a core team of HEARD researchers together, at its offices on the Westville Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In the next four years, HEARD will conduct different pieces of research 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.

Project 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.

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 SRH – 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 SRH and young key populations contexts that scientists, policymakers, 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.