Changing the narrative on Africa’s young key populations

UNDP Africa
11 min readDec 8, 2021
A participant at the media skills training workshop where young key populations expressed aspirations to make their voices heard and change the narrative on being LGBTI in Africa. Photo: Wanzyanji Mulwanda/UNDP

Young key populations are young gay men and other men who have sex with men, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, people who use drugs, young people in prisons and sex workers. Due to a range of factors, including widespread stigma, discrimination and violence, power imbalances and separation from family, they are especially vulnerable to HIV.

When stories on young key population are published by mainstream media in SADC countries, they are often misleading and advance negative stereotypes. They negatively influence societal attitudes towards these marginalized groups, resulting in increased self-stigma and discrimination. This has led to less uptake of sexual and reproductive health care services.

In order to change the narrative, Africa’s young key populations must ensure visibility and a strong media presence. Their voices must be heard.

For the past five years, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has implemented the Linking Policy to Programming project in five Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries — Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar and Zimbabwe — to build the capacity, skills and knowledge of young key populations in policy, law and advocacy, resulting in improved civic participation and recognition of human rights and sexual and reproductive health needs of young people in Africa.

As part of the project activities, UNDP organized media skills trainings for young people to build their journalistic skills and enhance the use of digital platforms for advocacy on issues affecting them.

The following are a set of stories by young key populations on the issues and challenges they are facing.

From darkness to light

By Jellar Phiri, human rights advocate

The year was 2013. I had just survived three years at an all-boys secondary school and passed with flying colours. Now, my family wanted me to attend church service.

My uncle had convinced my family that I was possessed by a demon. How else could they explain my “feminine gender expression”?

All my life I’d been raised as a boy, but that’s not who I felt I was. I was a Trans-woman. I am a Trans-woman. They just wouldn’t accept it.

On this particular Sunday morning, my mum’s church was packed. The pastor called me up to the altar and started to pray for me.

“Spirit of darkness, come out, leave him alone,” the pastor bellowed. My parents’ faces glowed with the hope that I’d be delivered from the female spirit that had “possessed” me. But I wasn’t possessed. The spirit inside was my natural self. They just wouldn’t accept it. They wouldn’t accept me.

“All is well” the pastor suddenly announced, his work apparently done, the demon supposedly gone. But I didn’t feel any shift within. I didn’t feel any different. I just felt ashamed and embarrassed in full view of the church, family, friends, neighbours and perfect strangers — for being myself.

A month went by after my “deliverance” and I was still the same me. My gender expression hadn’t changed. My gender identity hadn’t changed. I was still the person I was always meant to be.

I started reflecting on the humiliation my family and church had subjected me to. As part of my healing process, I started writing poems and speeches about human rights, about how everyone on this planet is a beautifully and wonderfully created piece of art. I didn’t want anyone else to be deemed inhuman because of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. I read my writing out loud, alone in my room, preaching to an imaginary audience. I didn’t know that a real audience was waiting to hear me.

A few years later, a friend introduced me to a group of people working to address the needs of trans and intersex people across my country. I was invited to a human rights focus group where we discussed some of the legal and social challenges that trans and gender diverse people face.

This was the first time I interacted with Trans identifying persons. I realized we all shared similar stories, struggles and hopes for a better future.

Being around other people who understood me was inspiring. It sent me on a journey to create more safe spaces and positive social environments that welcome and nurture sexual and gender diversity.

Our fight is grueling, but we know it’s the only way to give ourselves and future generations of gender and sexual minorities a fair shot at equality and happiness.

Conflict within

By Petronella Mkandawire, journalism student

Mental health affects many young people. This, alongside internalized hatred causes more harm to marginalized communities than one can imagine. Excessive intake of drugs and substances, such as alcohol, can be attributed to mental health issues that continue to affect young people. Sadly, young people are using drugs as a coping mechanism.

I conducted a focused group discussion with young key populations to share their thoughts and experiences pertaining to mental health issues. Of the attendees, 70 percent said that mental health issues are not addressed among young key populations, adding that they have not come across support groups or facilities that cater to community members in relation to mental health related illnesses.

It was noted that mental health issues are rarely addressed, with the majority of those who share their pain being mocked, criticized and looked down upon and called names such as “attention seekers”. It is for this and many other reasons that many young people will avoid getting the help they need by accessing social services, even when young key population-led organizations make them available.

We identified various mental health related issues during the discussion, but the most common among young key populations was depression. Depression (major depressive disorder) is a serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and act.

One of the attendees suggested that there is a need for creating safe spaces where young people can talk about issues that continue to negatively affect us, have access to professional counselors and mental health experts to help identify and treat these mental health issues thereby normalizing therapy among young Africans. Another attendee recommended that young key population-led organizations should establish a client database and send weekly text messages on mental health related topics in order to raise awareness on mental health.

My advice to every reader is to be a brother-sister’s keeper. Take care of yourself and reach out to people you trust when something keeps looping in your mind. There is always a solution to every problem.

Intersexuality: An African perspective

By Chola Mumba, Media Officer at Intersex Society of Zambia

In Africa, intersex individuals are considered a curse and a manifestation of sorcery or witchcraft. If an intersex baby is born, it had to be thrown into the river to drown or deserted in a forest to appease spirits, or else great calamity would befall the village.

Intersex people are individuals born with any of several sex characteristics, including chromosome patterns, gonads or genitals that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.

My name is Chola Mumba and I work at the Intersex Society of Zambia (ISSZ), an intersex-led organization advocating for the recognition of intersex persons in Zambia.

I was born on February 13, 1996 and am the last born in a family of 3. My mother passed on a few months after my birth and my father died when I was 8 years old.

I completed school in 2014. I was raised female instead of male. When I was born, both the doctors and my parents could not tell if I was male or female. So, a gender was picked for me.

Being intersex is not easy due to myths and misconceptions associated with the condition.

At school, my school mates would make fun of me by calling me “boy-girl” and ugly.

They teased me because I looked like a boy but dressed up as a girl. I never liked ‘girly’ things despite my parents having me dressed in a girl’s uniform. So, I decided to stop attending classes for months on end, until 8th grade when I decided to take charge of what I wore to class!

Being intersex is never easy. Intersex people often experience prejudice and discrimination because their bodies do not conform to other people’s expectation of sex or gender identity.

I felt stigmatized against and segregated in all aspects of life, from school, to friends and even society.

At the age of 15 puberty kicked in, this became ever more confusing. I began to develop feelings towards girls and my body was developing differently from other female friends.

My female friends developed breasts and experienced menstrual cycles, but with each day that passed, I looked more like a man. I remember asking mum (my aunt who took care of me) why I was developing differently from others. Her reply was: “don’t worry it will happen at its own time.”

I felt like ending my life until I came across an article about intersex persons. I was filled with joy because I was reading about someone like me. I made arrangements to meet with Mphatso Sakala (the Founder and Director of the Intersex Society of Zambia), who told me that “You are not alone”. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt free and at peace.

Mudiwa’s four golden rules

By Mudiwa

My name is Mudiwa, I’m 22 years old. I’m a female sex worker. My journey with sex work began over 2 years ago after my father died. Being the oldest of my siblings, I decided to step-up and find ways of taking care of my family.

There are many lessons I’ve learned in life and I’m glad to share them with you. These are lessons I wish I knew before getting into sex work… I call them: MUDIWA’S FOUR GOLDEN RULES.

1. Money cannot buy life

I’ve come to find out that there is no amount of money that can buy my life. My body is what makes me money. Therefore, I must protect it. I’ve learnt not to engage in sexual activities without a condom, this protects me from contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. But this can turn out to be a problem for the “problematic” client. One time a client tried to force me to engage in unprotected sex, to which my denial was met with anger and violent behavior. I have the scar to prove it!

Once, I contracted a sexually transmitted infection and visited a health care facility only to be discriminated by nurses. A lot of sex workers choose to lie about their health status in order to avoid stigma and discrimination from health care providers.

2. Sex work is a secret

Starting out as a sex worker, I thought it meant outwardly sharing the nature of my work to everyone. I didn’t know that it would result in a wave of discrimination. My access to health services has been difficult, the way people relate to me outside my work is so different. I’m not looked at as a “person” or “human being” anymore. Therefore, I must be discreet about the nature of my work, just so I can be attended to at health care facilities. I would like to freely consult doctors/nurses on what type of contraceptive or protective measure would best suit me, but that’s almost impossible.

3. Sex work is physical

When I say physical, I mean it literally affects your body. Some clients squeeze you; others manhandle you, because they think you don’t “belong to anyone”. Since we can’t freely talk about the nature of our work to anyone, this leaves us vulnerable.

I remember one time a client picked me up and after the session, he told me he would withdraw money and pay me. I agreed, got into his car and this man drove me to the middle of nowhere, threatened to kill me, dropped me off and sped off — leaving me with nothing. I didn’t know who to call or how to get back to town. What made me sad was I could not report the incident to the police, because no matter what happens to me, the law enforcers will blame me instead. I have trained myself to be alert and to avoid abuse.

4. But, in the end sex work is work

Through it all, I have experienced happiness. Sex work, like any other job has its good and bad times. I’m grateful that I can support my family. I’m glad to have met a lot of the women who do this kind work and don’t judge me. We teach and protect each other, like an unspoken sisterhood. I’ve grown to feel confident in what I do. I belong to a banking group where we save money and get loans to sustain ourselves. In addition, sex work is secrecy. In secrecy, because many married women or those about to get married come to me for lessons on “how to sustain a relationship”. Those fun filled moments bridge the gap between discrimination and sex work.

To be or not to be

By Jo

You can call me ‘Jo’ (not my real name). I’d like to share my experience of undergoing what is called “Conversion Therapy”.[1]

The way I define conversion therapy is: People trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation because they believe it is unnatural. In this process the individual in question would have to go through intense therapy with the intent to think that their sexuality is not right.

After speaking to my family about my sexual orientation, elders in my family convinced them to have me see a therapist. My parents thought it could help to convert me to being heterosexual. I had to follow a strict regimen as arranged by the family therapist.

The conversion therapy was an uncomfortable experience, you’re constantly reminded of how sinful your current lifestyle is.

Throughout the process, my feelings, and thoughts where dismissed, which made me feel less of a human being. I have come to believe, without a doubt, that this was the goal of the conversion therapy.

Despite the unorthodox process, my relationship with my family has become stronger as we have managed to come to terms with who I am. However, I still think that conversion therapy cannot change one into an entirely different person. Acceptance of oneself is key to peace of mind.

I believe that consulting a therapist for the right reasons is important. Coming to terms with who you are will give you a sense of pride and freedom. I advise young people, parents, and guardians to research before engaging into such programmes. Lastly, I would like more people subjected to conversion therapy to come out and speak about their experiences as this could help to educate other people in the community.

Some of the names appearing in this story have been changed to protect people’s identities.

The stories were developed by Wanzyanji Mulwanda, a Zambian based media trainer, radio broadcaster and project management specialist, and former a UN Volunteer at UNDP Zambia, Lusa Masulo, a law school graduate and feminist, and Hanna Mwaka Mwila, a law school graduate and feminist.

[1] According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, conversion therapy is an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. Such practices aim (or claim to aim) at changing people from gay, lesbian or bisexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender. For more, see:



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