Robert Monaghan Brian Dowd Walkabout Barber

Improving engagement in sexual health services in rural Aboriginal communities: ‘It’s about the conversation’

An innovative partnership between UNSW's Kirby Institute, Durex and Walkabout Barber aims to improve engagement and awareness of sexual health among young Aboriginal men.

News | Published on 05 Dec 2023

The Walkabout Barber Bus is a built for purpose barber shop on wheels. Recently, it travelled to Kempsey, a regional town on the traditional lands of the Dunghutti people, 423km north of Sydney, to provide free haircuts to young Aboriginal men in the area, and to open a judgement-free space for them to talk and learn about mental and sexual health.

Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in rural and remote regions are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with chlamydia, gonorrhoea and infectious syphilis than their non-Indigenous peers.

Kempsey, NSW

Kempsey is a regional town in Thunggutti/Dunghutti country, 423km north of Sydney

Robert Monaghan, Manager of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research at the Kirby Institute says awareness and engagement, particularly among young men, is crucial to drive down sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

“We need to find new ways to engage young men, because what’s been done isn’t working,” says Rob. “That’s where the Walkabout Barber comes in. We wanted to pilot an integration of sexual health information into the Walkabout Barber services. In this way, we can normalise conversations about sexual health.”


This video contains themes that may be distressing to some viewers including self-harm and mental health issues.

Brian Dowd, the Gamilraay man who founded Walkabout Barber, first conceptualised his shop as a place that combines haircuts with mental health first aid’, offering suicide prevention and wellbeing training to young Aboriginal people across Australia, often in hard-to-reach locations.

Brian Dowd Walkabout Barber

Brian Dowd, Walkabout Barber, giving a haircut and having mental and sexual health chat in the Barber Bus

Now, due to the innovative ‘Sexual Health Enhanced Walkabout’ pilot, Walkabout Barber has begun to incorporate information about sexual health services and, where appropriate, access to STI testing.

The pilot program was made possible thanks to an innovative partnership between the Kirby Institute, Durex, Durri Aboriginal Corporation Medical Service and Walkabout Barber.

Rory Duffy, CSR Lead for Durex ANZ, first recommended the partnership in 2019. “Durex is really looking at how we can close the healthcare gap between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people in Australia. As a global sexual heath brand, we feel it is our purpose to do something about it.”


The importance of Aboriginal-led initiatives

The Kirby Institute’s approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research is driven by principles of Aboriginal leadership and self-determination for the development and delivery of health solutions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

"These are complex problems, and the answers won’t be found in universities; they’re found out here, in communities,” says Rob.

The aim of the pilot program was twofold. One goal was to improve access to STI testing in the community. But an equally important goal was to evaluate the novel, community-led approach to engaging communities in sexual health, in order to generate evidence for these unique models of health promotion.

Robert Monaghan presenting

Robert Monaghan conducting a focus group discussion with young men in Kempsey

“Sexual health, sexuality and STIs should never be a taboo thing; they should be accepted as just something that happens and that is part of people being themselves, without shame or stigma. The goal of our research is to encourage these types of conversations between communities and health services, and we've seen some excellent evidence of this as a result of this pilot,” says Jackie Thomas, a Kamilaroi woman and a researcher at the Kirby Institute.

Jackie and Rob, together with Kirby Institute researchers Lise Lafferty and Skye McGregor conducted an evaluation of the initiative, through interviews and gathering information from Aboriginal health workers, Aboriginal stakeholders and participants to understand the project’s effectiveness and acceptability.

Lise Lafferty walkabout Barber Kempsey

Lise Lafferty, a qualitative researcher from the Kirby Institute working on the Sexual Health Enhanced Walkabout project, is speaking to one of the barbers about the project


Holistic approach to health crucial for Aboriginal communities

Rob conducted interviews with some of the pilot participants. He says that the interconnectedness of mental health, community health and other health issues was a clear theme for the young men in Kempsey.

“One of the questions I asked the kids when I was doing interviews with them was, ‘do you see yourself in this picture?' [Brian's story] and they said yes. Programs like this have that ripple effect, not only on sexual health, but across the whole course of someone’s life.”

The researchers found that the project was able to engage the community, and they saw increases in STI testing, particularly syphilis. Participants highlighted the importance of cultural connection when young people access sexual health information.

Jackie Thomas Walkabout Barber

Jackie Thomas from the Kirby Institute giving a demonstration of how to use a condom

Brian was pleased to see the sexual health component added to the service.

“It’s not just about the haircut, it’s about the conversation. Spirits connect with spirits, hearts connect with hearts, minds connect with minds, and we hope this is just the start of many of these visits. If we can get men talking, let’s keep them talking, and get men healthy, their families healthy and their communities healthy as well,” Brian said.

“We think this is a useful mechanism to engage young people in conversations about important health issues. We are looking at ways to expand the initiative to be able to help more communities,” says Rob.

The pilot for the Sexual Health Enhanced Walkabout project was funded by Durex and undertaken in partnership with Durri Aboriginal Corporation Medical Service in Kempsey, NSW.

The Kirby Institute would like to thank Durex, Durri Aboriginal Corporation Medical Service, Walkabout Barber, Mid-North Coast Local Health District (Kempsey Hospital and Aboriginal staff), and all Kempsey local schools and services who participated in and supported this event.


If this story has raised issues for you, and you or someone you know needs support, please contact:

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resource portal:
Brother 2 Brother 24 hour crisis line: 1800 435 799
Yarn safe:
Well mob:

In an emergency call 000 (triple zero).