Projet Jeune Leader’s Youth Spaces ("Coins Jeunes") are well-known to communities throughout – and even beyond – the Haute Matsiatra region of Madagascar. Yet to outsiders, a Youth Space may appear to be an amenity rather than a necessity, a "nice-to-have" rather than a “must-have.” Not only that, but experts in the adolescent sexual and reproductive field have recently begun to denounce similar spaces for youth.
These community-based Youth Centers are conceptualized as “one-stop shops” for resources, community, and support for matters related to sexual or reproductive health. They are meant to increase access to essential information and services for young people. Unfortunately, in reality, they are often only used as recreational spaces, are only frequented by older adolescent boys, and are rarely open. We continue to see such spaces (locally called Maisons des Jeunes, or Youth Houses) being built in Madagascar. Our teams working in rural sites have never been able to collaborate with those nearby, as they lack staff and remain closed. The Youth House in the same city as our main office has posted a handwritten note on its front doors, outlining a membership fee for youth who want to enter. These are a far cry from being accessible and helpful spaces.
So, what makes our Youth Spaces different?
The first step of our answer requires "zooming-out" and looking at the wider economic conditions that influence our work in Madagascar. The most recently available data shows that in 2013, 2.6% of Madagascar’s GNP was allocated to education (the average was 3.1% between 2000 and 2012). That's low, even in comparison with the average percent of GNP other African countries allocated to education spending from 2000 to 2012:
Kenya - 6.4%
Mozambique - 4.9%
Burkina Faso - 4.2%
Niger - 3.5%
Madagascar - 3.1%
Cameroon - 3.1%
Democratic Republic of the Congo - 2.5%
Central Africa Republic - 1.4%
Although this data has not been updated recently, poor investment in education is readily evident in Madagascar’s limited infrastructure and resources today. Because public middle schools do not have enough teachers and classroom space, students have at least one hour of unsupervised time (often more) in the middle of their school week.
These conditions undeniably hurt students. However, Projet Jeune Leader has been able to utilize this excess free time to integrate our comprehensive sexual-reproductive health and leadership courses into students’ timetables. From the students’ perspectives, Projet Jeune Leader courses are part of their normal school schedule.
Youth Spaces provide critical classroom space to allow these courses to occur. In addition to courses, these spaces serve other multi-functional purposes. They serve as offices for Youth Educators to conduct counseling and offer medical referrals for students, fostering critical linkages between adolescents and youth-friendly health and social services. They also serve as safe libraries and recreational spaces with books and games for students to use when they do not have class.
Furthermore, our Youth Educators are often at school long after other teachers have left. This is part of our interrelated and whole-school approach to sexuality and leadership education. In addition to courses and referrals, safe and educational extra-curricular programming in our Youth Spaces provide adolescents another way to access sexual-reproductive health education, counseling, and services from a trusted adult. This is why we require special equipment, decorations, books, and magazines that promote a safe, youthful, and enabling environment for learning.
To put it simply, our Youth Spaces are needed. Not only that, they work – and we have evidence to support it.
This past school year, we took a "snapshot" of Youth Space usage at 11 of our 12 partner schools. Over a four-week period, we collected the gender and grade level of all students (unduplicated each day) entering the Youth Space during "Open Hours" – hours during which students are free to use the space, when there are no sexual health and leadership classes scheduled. At our six urban and peri-urban schools, we found that between 1,714 and 3,001 visits occurred at the Youth Spaces during any given week. Even more impressive, given our five rural partner schools' smaller sizes, we recorded between 1,020 and 1,878 visits in the same timespan.
Put into context, across 11 schools representing a total student body size of about 9,000 students, there were anywhere from 2,700 and 4,800 visits (30-50% of the target population) at PJL's Youth Space during a normal school week. A little more than half were girls. Students across all four grades – representing very young adolescents to older adolescents – were nearly equally represented. Surprisingly, between 1% and 8% of the Youth Space visitors were high school students or other teachers.
To understand how all those students were using the space, we closely tracked the number of books, games, and health and leadership magazines that were checked out during the same timeframe. This revealed that, quite consistently, around one-third of students actively engaged with materials in the spaces. It’s more than we expected, as students typically read books and play games in small groups, suggesting that an even higher percentage were actually engaging with our resources.
We also can’t forget that 4,596 students received weekly sexuality and leadership courses in our Youth Spaces during the entirety of the last school year. To add it all up, our Youth Educators taught an impressive 1,404 hours of comprehensive sexuality education across a total of just 12 schools’ Youth Spaces.
The infrastructure and resources our Youth Spaces offer facilitate adolescents’ increased access to sexual-reproductive health information. But what further distinguishes our spaces are the Youth Educators that staff them. Students look up to these highly-trained young adults as cool role-models. Their energetic presence, the after-school programming they organize, and the vibrant Youth Spaces they run make school a fun place for the first time. Thanks to the presence of the Youth Spaces and educators, students always have someone to turn to when they need support. We found that 3,114 students requested one-on-one counseling with a Youth Educator during this past year. Their questions and concerns ranged from their academic studies (24% of cases), to relationship problems (28%), to sexual-reproductive health (44%).
We strive to continuously improve our Youth Spaces and build a model that is more effective and successful than traditional youth centers. We are motivated by a shared belief: youth deserve to have a place where they feel safe and can learn and are allowed to have fun and be “just kids.”
And with the right planning, materials, and human resources, we are confident that such spaces can provide adolescents direct access to essential sexual and reproductive health information, education, and services, helping them lead healthy and productive lives from puberty into adulthood.