Published on 5th October 2016
Huge boxes of chocolate-flavoured condoms may not be the first thing you think of when you think of Vanuatu, but in Bronwyn Hale's office, they could be the first thing you see.
In a country where 57 percent of the population are under 25, and 22 percent of people who are tested have chlamydia – an STI which can cause long-term health problems including infertility and blindness – the work Bron is doing with the Vanuatu Family Health Association to train nurses and get funding for sexual health programmes is critical.
“It’s about working with professionals who are very receptive to most methods of family planning, including condoms. If the people on the ground who are doing the work are on board, the first step is taken. But we’re also working with community leaders. We don’t just need the skills and experience, we need the buy-in,” says Bron. “We work with the nurses and with the leaders.
“After that it’s about access. That’s why we use distribution sites such as nakamal (bars and drinking spots). It’s mostly male condoms because there’s still some skepticism for hormonal forms of contraception. Condoms are a bit more tangible and not just about contraception – they’re key to reducing STIs.”
Bron’s just got back from training village nurses in some of Vanuatu’s more remote provinces. These nurses are often the only medical presence for miles. “These nurses get help to the people who need it. Like the woman who has to catch a boat to get to the nearest health centre because she’s got a 1.5kg baby who needs care from qualified professionals, if it survives the journey.”
This training is a critical part of Bron’s assignment. Her colleague Julie Aru is immensely proud of what they have achieved together. “It’s really a blessing that she came. Bronwyn did a very good job with the funding. She worked through the negotiations and we now have the funds, and we are the first to be doing this, and we’re doing a great job.”
Sexual health work doesn’t just pay off in terms of individual gains: by promoting family planning, communities will be better able to prepare for the future. Bron says Vanuatu’s “youth bulge” calls for action. “In another fifty years those youth will be ageing. There’s a need for some forward planning for this cohort as that happens.
“Where I’ve just been for the last two weeks, money isn’t important. But a roof over your head and vegetables in the garden are – and that’s work that the youth are responsible for in their communities. Which is why we really make it clear in training that contraception is about family planning, not family stopping.”