How do you talk with adolescents about sex?
It is not an easy task for anyone! Even those of us here at Girl Up Initiative Uganda who are trained to educate youth on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) feel uncomfortable at times when it comes to sharing freely about the different body parts and body changes that adolescents go through.
That is why we were so grateful to Marva Zohar, a midwife from Israel, who delivered a special SRH training for the Girl Up team. Not only did she give us key information that will help us break the myths many adolescents believe about sex, she also helped us see how essential it is to educate youth on their body parts.
Marva shared a story with us about a young girl who visited the hospital to get treatment for an infection she had in her vagina. When they asked her which body part was infected, she replied, “I have an infection down.” She was not able to explain where exactly the infection was. This was a challenge to the health workers as they weren’t able to immediately understand or identify the issue the girl had!
This story helped us see how not knowing the names of one’s own sexual and reproductive body parts could have unfortunate consequences on youths’ health. Going forward we plan on educating adolescents on how to name each body parts in their local languages too, to make it even easier for them to understand their own bodies.
Throughout Marva’s training, she demonstrated an ease with naming the body parts that put the rest of us at ease. We appreciated her confidence and perspective: that honestly talking about this is natural and nothing to be embarrassed about. She also helped us see that any shame or shyness we experience in talking about sex is okay. We know now that taking time to consider our own feelings on these topics will enable us to be more effective trainers. The more comfortable and confident we are, the more the youth will feel at ease, which is an important part of empowering them about their own bodies and rights.
Marva explored the topic of working with our feelings (and helping the youth work with theirs, too). She helped us see how important it is to check in with our mind, heart, and body before making decisions such as who to be intimate with or not. She talked about how when the mind, heart, and body are not all in agreement, it is important to reconsider the choices we are making.
For example, if a young girl is being encouraged to spend time with a “sugar daddy,” her mind might say, “Yes, he’ll give me money and take care of me.” Her heart might say, “But I don’t really like him and I remember my coach telling me I can say no to these offers.” Her body might say, “I kind of like the way I’m feeling right now but I also want to run away.” Her feelings and the information coming from her mind, heart, and body are all important to listen to. When she is educated on how to check in with herself in this way and listen to her different feelings, she will be empowered to make choices that “feel right” on all levels.
We are excited to carry all that we learned from Marva forward in our training sessions. We know how having correct and accurate information about SRH is essential for youth to make smart and informed choices when it comes to their bodies and sexuality. Without valuable knowledge training, youth believe common myths such as: “If you’ve started menstruating you are ready to have sex,” and “You can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.” It is also important that youth spend time getting to know what is ‘right’ for themselves instead of falling into making decisions based on negative peer pressure.
In a context where by the age of 18 over 62 percent of young women and almost 48 percent of young men have already had their first sexual encounter, the training with Marva built our staff capacity so that each staff member is equipped with the wisdom, knowledge and skills to create safe spaces for youth to talk honestly about their sexual and reproductive health. We look forward to paying forward the lessons we learned from Marva to the thousands of youth we work with through our programs!
Marva Zohar is a midwife who is currently volunteering with Mother Health International in Northern Uganda (Attiak) at a birth center that offers gentle safe births. She is working with traditional midwives and training local midwives to use the midwifery model of care.
Marva Zohar is also a poet and the founder of Ohela. After she leaves Uganda she will be traveling the world to raise funds and awareness for her vision: Land Where Women Heal.