STEP Story: Chris Ahlbach

SM 2, University of California, San Francisco
Kisumu East/West Sub-County, June 4 – July 27, 2017

I had the incredible privilege this summer of working on a project that aims to increase male acceptance of family planning by engaging men in conversations about masculinity. “Wategno Kanyakla”-Stronger Together in English-is the name of the year-long study which takes place in a number of rural villages in Western Kenya. I jumped in right before recruitment began, and had an amazing time getting my feet wet with study design, implementation, and training study staff. The project is co-led by Dr. Sara Newmann, an ObGyn, and sociologist Dr. Shari Dworkin, which gave me a beautiful foundation to synthesize crucial topics relating gender roles and health outcomes.

Before I joined the project, there had been over 5 years of formative research in the study sites that had shown a central barrier to contraceptive usage was male partner resistance. Further, this resistance was found to be closely related to ideas about masculinity and living out appropriate manhood. Using the men’s own answers and ideas about masculinity and family planning, our surveys and interventions were constructed with additional help from the amazing Sonke Gender Justice: an organization based out of South Africa that activates men to fight for gender equality.

Throughout my time here, I got to contribute to the success of the study in a number of ways. I helped get the study up and going, starting with training the interviewers, and assisted the phenomenally talented study coordinator Ammon Ojwang and Co-Investigator Dr. Louisa Ndunyu, who both taught me more than I ever could have imagined about effective team leadership and study organization.

One of the biggest highlights was when I developed a workshop for the study team about family planning methods that covered how they work, benefits, side effects, and dispelled common myths. This was an incredible opportunity for the interviewers and workshop facilitators to learn in a non-judgmental space, and work through case studies to explore how clinicians deal with complex topics like covert FP use, FP use in the context of gender-based violence, and social determinants of unplanned pregnancy and HIV infection. It was also an incredible opportunity for myself-to be able to break down and teach really complex physiology and sociological concepts was profoundly fulfilling.

On the weekends another STEP student, Hannah, and I travelled to Hell’s Gate National Park, Kakamega forest, Maboko Island in Lake Victoria, Masai Mara, among other amazing places! Cathy, travel expert extraordinaire and our program coordinator, was always extremely helpful and willing in helping get us oriented and feeling right at home. Overall this was an exceptional opportunity, and I might be returning later in the year to help kick off the intervention workshops!