It was early in the pandemic when Aline Umutesi and her colleagues realised that the Rwandan government’s guidelines were not reaching girls and young women in rural areas.
“They had no idea what COVID-19 was,” Umutesi tells me. “In villages, there were lots of rumours: young people cannot get it; drinking water with lemon and ginger will cure you. Girls were confused, so we needed to get involved.”
Umutesi, a senior manager for Ni Nyampinga – a multi-platform media company run by women and girls, for women and girls – and her colleagues started creating their own COVID educational content, working with the Ministry of Health to disseminate messages young people in these areas could relate to.
“For example, we invited on to our radio programme Nicole, a young health professional from the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, who explained in a clear and friendly way what COVID-19 is, and how girls can protect themselves and why,” says 24-year-old Ni Nyampinga journalist Goodluck Mutoni. “We like our radio packages to be engaging, so we also invited Knowless, a famous R&B and reggae singer, who told our listeners that even she follows the safety measures.”
Ni Nyampinga – which translates from Kinyarwanda to: “beautiful girl inside and out who makes wise decisions” – was created in 2011 by the international non-profit Girl Effect, to challenge gender norms and help girls access opportunities and skills in education, health and economic empowerment.
“Despite real progress in gender equality in the country, the gender norm for girls is still around the house, then to become a wife and a mother,” says Samantha Diouf, Girl Effect’s country director for Rwanda. “Ni Nyampinga helps fill a gap: there wasn’t any media talking directly to girls in their own language and addressing their problems.”
Through a network of brand ambassadors and clubs in all 30 districts of Rwanda, the organisation’s content regularly reaches 680,000 girls between the ages of ten and 19.
As of mid-August, 2,577 COVID-19 cases have been recorded in Rwanda, with ten deaths. Schools are still closed, there is a curfew prohibiting movement from 9PM to 5AM, and social distancing and masks are still mandatory in public places.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in March, Ni Nyampinga’s young journalists have produced 15 pandemic-related radio shows, and seven more are scheduled to be aired soon. The shows are broadcast on Radio Rwanda, which reaches 98 percent of the population – a good way to get the message out to rural areas. Similar content has also been spread through the group’s magazines and social media platforms.
“It is one thing to have the Health Minister say, ‘Stay at home and wash your hands.’ [It’s another thing] to hear it as an adolescent-friendly message on a radio programme that all your friends listen to, or read it in your girl’s magazine,” says Rachel Belt, senior country manager at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – a public–private global health partnership whose goal is to increase access to immunisation in poor countries. The group is advising and funding some of the Rwandan government’s COVID-19 response.
Ni Nyampinga’s messages around COVID-19 are effective because they speak directly to the girls. “We don’t talk at them about COVID-19 in isolation – we talk with them about their lives, their dreams, their home revision, how to stay in touch with friends, how to use their time well by learning new skills, how to maintain healthy relationships,” says Diouf.
The team asked their brand ambassadors across the country to self report their experiences of the pandemic – how they’re coping, and the myths and misinformation they’re hearing.
These self reports have been invaluable in helping the group tailor their message. “Girls find masks uncomfortable, especially if they wear glasses or worry that a mask might spoil their makeup,” says 22-year-old journalist Clarisse Gusenga. “They do not like having dry hands after washing their hands, and have poor understanding about the way the virus is transmitted and that it can survive on surfaces that you might touch, like a door handle or money.”
Their research also found that most young people doubt they’ll catch the virus - and that girls are finding they have less time than their brothers, as they’re expected to do most of the chores around the house.
Based on these insights, Ni Nyampinga have created educational packages for radio and social media. For example, guides on how to negotiate with your parents for the fairer division of household chores. “We also point out places and services where they can get help,” says Gusenga.
It is too early to assess Ni Nymapinga’s impact on Rwanda’s fight against the pandemic, but the government is certainly grateful. “Girl Effect’s expertise in communication is of great value,” says Hassan Sibomana, the chief immunisation coordinator at the Ministry of Health. “Government institutions alone cannot tackle this issue. Girl Effect are experts in reaching adolescent girls consistently, and are trusted by them.”
This is not the first time the group has worked with the government on a national health response; they have been collaborating since 2016 on a project to boost HPV vaccine uptake and address barriers to immunisation.
Girl Effect researched perceptions around the vaccine, the misinformation and the fears. “Because the vaccine is for adolescent girls only, many parents and even health workers deduced that it was to make them infertile,” says Frida Uwera, a strategist at Girl Effect Rwanda. There were also rumours that the vaccine caused the disease itself.
“We tested different formats and contents so that the messages were clear, simple and accurate, then we embedded them in our regular content and storylines on all our platforms,” says Uwera.
“Vaccination programmes in Rwanda are an entry point for various health interventions, including nutrition and mosquito nets distribution,” Sibomana adds. “This constitutes a great opportunity to deliver to [girls] different messages, including on sexual and reproductive health education.”
Full impact data of the four-year, $10 million partnership, funded through Gavi and Girl Effect matching funds, is expected later this year – but preliminary data based on qualitative interviews show that girls who read the magazine and/or listen to the radio show are more likely to be aware of cervical cancer and have accurate information about HPV vaccines.
“Infertility myths are still around, but girls are on the frontline to dismiss them,” says Uwera.
“Feedback from Ni Nyampinga audience is a living evidence not only of real changes taking place today, but also potential changes in the future,” Sibomana adds. “Vaccines work. We have seen tremendous impact in our country. I think COVID-19 will not be the exception.”