What is Link Up?
Link Up is a project funded by the Dutch Government - and run by a consortium of NGOs - that aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health of young people most affected by HIV, and to promote the realisation of sexual and reproductive rights for young people.
Why is it so important to focus our efforts on young people?
Young people are disproportionately affected by both HIV and unintended pregnancy. HIV is now the second largest contributor to adolescent mortality globally, while the biggest killer of 15 to 19 year old girls around the world is pregnancy and childbirth.
Young people often face big challenges accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Link Up is all about changing this. Through the project, we’re reaching out to the groups who typically find it the toughest to access services, often because of stigma, discrimination or fear of criminalisation. Groups including young people living with HIV and sex workers.
A big part of Link Up is integrating sexual and reproductive health services. Is this effective?
Put simply, integration is common sense. Low contraceptive use and increased HIV transmission have been attributed to the same root causes: lack of knowledge, high costs, stigma, and limited supplies and access to services. Tackling people’s sexual and reproductive health needs holistically helps to improve their overall health.
What are some of the approaches you’ve developed to reach these groups?
Link up is running across three of the countries where Marie Stopes International works: Bangladesh – where I run the project, Myanmar and Uganda.
In all countries, we’re seeing success when we take our services out directly to the groups we’ve identified as most at-risk. My colleagues in Uganda are using tuk tuks to take services to some of the country’s most crowded slums. And here in Bangladesh, we’ve been setting up mobile clinics where homeless people gather, and in factories and brothels. Just the other month, I heard from my colleagues in Myanmar about how they’re identifying events and festivals attended by the most at-risk people, such as men who have sex with men. They set up booths on the roads to the festival to talk to passers-by about a whole range of sexual and reproductive health issues.
In short, going out directly to groups traditionally marginalised from these services is a really effective way of helping them realise their right to sexual and reproductive health.
What other approaches are helping you to ‘link up’ services in Bangladesh?
Another approach that’s working well for us in Bangladesh is teaming up with smaller community-based organisations. These organisations often have expertise in generating demand for services so can be a vital source of referrals for us.
Often we’ll work with organisations whose membership consists of the people we’re trying to reach out to, which is the best way of making sure that our services are tailored to their needs. All our Link Up countries are trying to involve more and more representatives from key populations in the design and implementation of programmes for this very reason.
How are you seeing the benefit of ‘Linking Up’ in Bangladesh?
Ultimately, Link Up is helping us to reach people we wouldn’t otherwise have reached. The International HIV / Aids Alliance – the lead Link Up partner – is teaching us a lot about engaging populations we haven’t previously worked with. It’s really rewarding for all of us to be involved in the project and see more people getting the services they need as a result of this partnership.
What’s next for Link Up in Bangladesh?
Well, for one, we need to keep up the good work we’re already doing!
But we’re also looking to identify other at-risk groups who we’re not yet working with. We recently conducted research into the sexual behaviour of truck drivers and found that they were a high risk group, so we’re exploring strategies to reach them.
We’re also aware that Bangladesh is a conservative country and our society is more rigid than some of the other Link Up countries. So we’re teaming up with our partner organisations to keep educating and sensitising the communities we work in, to remove barriers to the effective delivery of integrated services.