Extending sexuality education to adolescents with disabilities
At Projet Jeune Leader, we continually work towards a vision that all Malagasy adolescents are empowered to make healthy and informed sexual health decisions from puberty into adulthood. Such work is illustrated by our partnership at CENTRE ECAR EPHATA. This private EPP school was founded in 2002 by the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Nuns to specifically serve youth who are blind or have a range of visual and cognitive disabilities.
EPHATA hosts students from all around Madagascar, including Fianarantsoa, Vatovavy Fitovinany, Fort Dauphin, Toliara, and Antananarivo. Most students live at the school and a few travel within Fianarantsoa to attend daily. They receive a standard education to pass the national primary school exam, after this they are divided into two groups: students who attend middle school within Fianarantsoa and those who receive a vocational education on site. They all participate in activities such as agriculture, music, and cooking classes to increase their dexterity and independence. Now, sexual health education and leadership development are a part of their growth and self-determination.
Two years ago EPHATA approached PJL for a collaboration; they wanted their students to benefit from the curriculum and presence of PJL’s young, trained educators. Our founder, Maia, met with the parents of the students to explain the PJL program and it was enthusiastically received. Every other week, morning classes are held at the well-built and spacious EPHATA facility a few kilometers outside of the center of Fianarantsoa. There are two groups, one with 9 students, ages 9-14 and another of 12 students, ages 14-20. They meet for two hours each and then students, staff, and PJL staff eat lunch together.
The PJL staff who facilitate at EPHATA, Francis and Tahiry, have the warmth and instinctive approach indicative of people who have trained to work with youth people with disabilities, but they have no such specific training. Both were prior Educators, or “Jeune Leaders”, in PJL's public partner schools for two consecutive school years; that experience gave them solid teaching know-how and informed their view that all students deserve access to and can benefit from positive sexual health and leadership education. Tahiry explained that,"I am very touched by their ability to strive and learn… we have to be more aware of the language that we use, being careful not to hurt their feelings, for example not using the verb ‘to see’ when checking for comprehension. The students show us a lot of affection, even more so than students in the public middle schools, because they just go off the sound of your voice - they can’t judge you by what you look like."
Since the beginning of the school year in November, Francis and Tahiry have taught the themes, ‘What makes a leader?’, ‘Self Confidence’, and ‘Puberty’ – three out of 20 or so themes on sexual-reproductive health and rights and leadership in the curriculum to be covered throughout the entire school year.
Each class begins with and is punctuated by physical activities and ice-breakers that range from short poems to call-and-response phrases that make the students happy and very eager to participate overall. This is followed by a review of previous material. For this week, students excitedly raised their hands affirmatively in response to the question ‘Do you have self-confidence?’ and then explained what that means to them.
The topic for the class on January 30th was puberty. For the main activity, Francis and Tahiry performed a skit. Francis acted out a story of a boy in junior high school who experiences his first nocturnal pre-ejaculation. Concerned about his health, because he has never discussed or heard about this, Francis decides to talk to his Jeune Leader, Tahiry, after their next class. As Tahiry counsels him about what happened, the conversation goes from a discussion about not being scared because he has reached puberty, to what girls experience during puberty, to the hormones that cause puberty, and all the other changes that will occur going forward. As in most classrooms around the world, students were blushing, giggling and at times bursting with laughter throughout the story.
After the skit, Francis and Tahiry reviewed the important content from the story by asking comprehension questions and shared more information regarding puberty. The students were engaged and curious, looking around the room one notes that many of them were beginning to experience these changes themselves. Francis and Tahiry reminded the students at the end of class that they are always available for one-on-one counseling.
When speaking with the nuns who live and work with these students, their appreciation of the program is evident. Sister Michelle shared that, ‘’…the students enjoy these classes, the communication flows because they [the students] are at ease and more open about these topics with Francis and Tahiry, more so than with us. The trust their Jeunes Leaders.’’
For more information about EPHATA, visit their website.