"But if we do that, we will lose our control over the young people… Can we let that happen? And what will others think of us, if we do that?" When a participant in our training session posed that question, I felt we were getting to the heart of the issue. My response to the group is: "Do we ever really have the control over young people? Are we there when they decide to have sex or not?", and after a short silence, a heated debate started about the main dilemmas that SRHR1 educators face when applying the youth-centered, right-based approach. Dilemmas and questions such as: How to provide all the facts, including the advantages of the less healthy behaviours, without being understood as promoting that type of behaviours? How to leave the choice to the young people, even if this means that a young person might opt for another solution than the one that I think is best? Or how to deal with young people or their parents who expect me - as a health care worker - to provide them with THE perfect solution, or to tell them what to do?
This session took place during the first of three training weeks of the NUFFIC tailor-made training (TMT)2 Key building blocks for innovative and participatory approaches in SRHR programming that Rutgers provided to 24 staff and youth volunteers of ABPF3 in Benin between October 2017 and March 2018. Rutgers also provided a similar TMT to ABMS4. Both organisations are NGOs working on improving the SRHR of young people in Benin. This series of trainings aimed to strengthen their capacity to implement more effective SRHR interventions. Specific attention was given to open communication on sensitive topics, the gender transformative approach, comprehensive sexuality education, meaningful participation of youth and other marginalized target groups, alliance building, advocacy and community involvement.
The TMT has changed my way of addressing SRHR topics with young people. More young people are coming to me and they are more open to me.Yann KoundeSchool Club Animator, ABMS
For Yann Kounde (School Club Animator, ABMS) the training sessions were an eye-opener as he shared his experience: "Since the very first session of the TMT, my way of addressing SRHR topics with young people has changed. I now take the time to listen to the young person in order to let him or her analyse all the elements of the problem, before jumping to solutions. And instead of dictating one solution, I roll out the wide range of options. I help them to determine the pro’s and cons of each option, so that they make the choice that suits them best. And the effects have been immediately visible: I have noticed that more young people are coming to me to discuss personal issues, and are more open to me about their dilemmas."
The agenda of these kind of tailor-made trainings is packed with a specific selection of interactive exercises, that let participants go through the learning cycle of experiencing, reflecting, applying and interiorising. Sometimes the topic and goal of an exercise is shared from the beginning, as is the case for 'Facts & Opinions'. In this exercise participants have to come up with commonly heard sentences regarding SRHR in Benin. They analyse whether these common messages are facts or opinions, and then identify how they could be reformulated to be clearly recognisable as an opinion or more correctly phrased as a fact. As a next step, divided in groups, the participants formulate an informative paragraph on a sensitive topic (e.g. masturbation, sex before marriage, pornography, abortion, etc.), trying to stay as objective and neutral as possible.
Sometimes the goal of an exercise is not disclosed beforehand on purpose, to let the participants experience it first, and reflect on what they gained from the exercise afterwards. An example of one of those exercises is the 'Confidence Game', where participants are divided into groups of four people. (See picture, by Ibrahim Moussa) Three of them will stand behind the fourth person, while forming a safety net by crossing and holding their arms. The 4th person straightens its body and lets him/herself fall backwards into the arms of the others. This exercise can symbolise many things for participants. After reflection, some participants made a parallel with themselves venturing into new approaches to sexuality education, needing the trust and support of their colleagues to dare to do this. Others recognised the young person in the person falling backwards; a young person who needs a safe and secure space to be able to experiment to learn essential life skills, but who needs trust and support to ask the sensitive questions regarding SRHR and who needs to be protected from possible risks while doing this.
Different kind of innovation
These TMTs are a good example of the way Rutgers works to strengthen the other SRHR organisations’ capacity regarding the positive, rights-based, gender transformative approach to sexuality. Rutgers applies practical and participatory methodologies to create a safe space in which innovation can take place: to critically reflect on what organisations have been doing and why, and identify the areas where they could improve. When people hear “innovation”, they often think of the use of new technological applications. However, Rutgers works on innovation at a deeper level: the innovation lies in the way you address issues and how you formulate your messages to increase impact, regardless whether you use high-tech, creative or old-fashioned channels. It is about building a positive, empowering and equal attitude towards your target group, being genuinely interested in and open towards their realities and (im)possibilities, and acknowledging that there are just as many similarities as there are differences in the personal and societal values regarding sexuality.
We were offered opportunities to correct our prejudices and behaviours towards young people and sexual diversities.Alfred SotonMass Media Communication Coordinator, ABMS
Alfred Soton (Mass Media Communication Coordinator, ABMS) also wanted to share his experience after the training week. “In summary, I am very proud of this training, which offered us many opportunities to correct our prejudices and our behaviour towards certain key target groups, such as young people and sexual diversities. Also, the training offered me the opportunity overcome my own embarrassments and talk with my nine year old daughter about her future menstruation. It was a relief for me and my wife, as we feared our daughter would be confronted with the event without knowing what was happening to her. From now on, it will be easier for me to address sensitive topics with others without embarrassment!”, he said.
Recognising that it is an illusion that we have actual control over the young people we work with, and that it is thus a myth that we lose that control if we apply an empowering approach to their (sexual) education, is a crucial but very difficult aspect of the right-based approach to SRHR. Especially in more autocratic societies, where parents and other educators traditionally perceive that their authority depends mostly on all-knowing and directive, no-discussion-or-questions-allowed behaviour. As participants to Rutgers’ training have said: “It will take courage to change the way we educate our children, as it might be very different from how we were raised, but if we don’t dare to be pioneers now, the next generation will still lack the information and support we missed ourselves.“
1 SRHR: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
2 TMT is a short training subsidy of The Netherlands Fellowship Programmes (NFP) of NUFFIC, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
3 Association Béninoise pour la Promotion de la Famille
4 Association Béninoise pour le Marketing Social