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| July 29, 2016

Finding Her Voice: Young Woman Challenges Stigma

“It’s not easy for people to talk about… sex,” Cynthia blurts out.

Cynthia had been struggling to find words to summarize the five-day training she just completed on youth sexuality and reproductive health.

In her hesitation to even say the word, Cynthia, an 18-year-old student and community ambassador for the USAID-funded Passages project, is not unlike her peers. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sex is a taboo topic, despite high rates of unintended pregnancies among adolescents and young adults.

“Many young people are having [sex] but no one is comfortable talking about it,” Cynthia explains. “And they don’t understand the repercussions.”

This is what Passages is trying to change—social expectations and judgements limit young people’s options, or prevent them from protecting their health.

Passages aims to create environments where youth can access contraception and have the number of children they want, when they want them. The project engages people in the community to act as advocates for sexual and reproductive health and to talk to other young people–both single and newly married. Youth representatives like Cynthia also work with the Ministry of Health to train healthcare providers to welcome young clients and meet their needs.

“The training I received was fascinating,” Cynthia says about a workshop led by the Association de Santé Familiale (ASF), Population Services International’s network member in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“I learned about youth behavior from ages 9 to 24 and how to interact with young people according to their age group. For example, 15-17 year olds typically have distanced themselves [socially] from their family and are more interested in being like their friends. 20-24 year olds, on the other hand, feel more responsibility and their family plays an increasingly large role in their lives as they begin to have their own families.

“They taught us that each age group needs to be approached differently when talking about sexuality.” Having completed the training, Cynthia says she feels “very well equipped to speak with both young men and women.” Cynthia has gone on to co-facilitate trainings of 80 healthcare providers to ensure that their family planning and HIV services are youth-friendly.

One of the ways that the Passages project reaches young people and reinforces positive social expectations related to family planning and sexual and reproductive health is by working with faith-based organizations.

“Church is a safe space for most people,” Cynthia explains. “If ministers are on board with this kind of program – and many are – then people will be more open to discussing this sensitive topic there.

“I’m really excited to begin working with youth,” Cynthia says. “I think youth sexuality and reproductive health is a big issue in Kinshasa and if we can approach it in a way where people are more comfortable acknowledging it, then we can do a lot.”

Passages, led by the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University in partnership with FHI 360, JHU’s Global Early Adolescent Study, PSI, Save the Children and Tearfund, aims to address a broad range of social norms, at scale, to achieve sustained improvements in family planning and sexual and reproductive health. This research project is building the evidence base and contributing to the capacity of the global community to strengthen normative environments that support positive family planning and sexual and reproductive health, especially among very young adolescents, newly married couples, and first-time parents. In DRC, Passages’ Transforming Masculinitites/Masculinite, Famille, et Foi study promotes positive masculinity and gender equality through congregations and religious leaders.

 Photo Credit (s): Benjamin Schilling

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