Commonly Overlooked, Sexual Health Education is key in Guatemala

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Sexual health is a theme considered taboo in Guatemala and it is not yet included in the education program for schools, though there is a law that guarantees universal access to contraception and reproductive health education.  Sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy and young motherhood are some of the common results from the censor of sexual education in the country.

The main characteristics of Central American states policy on issues like sex education, abortion and contraception, are prohibition, restriction and inaction.  Guatemala has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the region, 240 per every 100,000 live births. (UNICEF and UNFP)  Premature pregnancy and unsafe abortion are closely related to maternal mortality. Abortion is legally permitted only if a woman’s life is in danger. Our country also has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America; in 2012, there were 61,000 reported teen girls pregnancies, of which 35 were 10 year old girls. (www.ticotimes.net/2014/06/16) Many experts point out the lack of education and healthcare, widespread poverty and sexual violence as the main catalyst behind this rise in teen pregnancy. By the age of 30, many Guatemalan women have already given birth to five to eight children.

JUSTA is conducting a series of sexual health workshops with the secondary school of Chacaya. The objective of these workshops is to bring proper information to the students, to let them know how to keep their bodies healthy and to exercise their rights and responsibilities.

Estimated Chacayá population for 2015 is 1439 habitants.  Currently, only 55 students attend the secondary school. In Chacaya secondary, only 27% of the total students are girls.  98% of Chacayá population is evangelical, and there are many evangelical congregations in the community. These churches exert significant influence in Guatemala and it is to be said that this influence is based on their connections with power.  Usually the position of a pastor regarding women is that they are subordinate to men and destined to be self-sacrificing mothers. These messages make their way into the mindset of youth and influence how adolescents interact.

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Our facilitators for these workshops are Marea Goodman and Luz Vogel from Manos Abiertas, both experienced midwives, strong and open minded women and above all, deeply sensitive to cultural norms and concerned about consequences of the censor of sexual education.  They decided to separate boys from girls for working this subject, in order to allow a free and open space, especially for the girls, who barely dare to talk when boys are around and who are usually victims of chauvinist jokes or comments.

Reactions from boys during the first session, as expected, were a lot of murmuring and laughter.  Marea and Luz replied with serenity and seriousness, going over the basic concepts, and establishing the three axes around which this session would turn: pleasure, safety and agreement.   The meaning of each of these concepts was developed and it was established the need of these three for having healthy sex between two people regardless of when that occurs.

 

We also focused on the anatomy of male and female reproductive system and similarities and differences and how each of the internal organs function.  The students entered the class without much knowledge of how their bodies functioned or how to care for them.  Students asked many, many questions by writing them on paper anonymously. Marea and Luz treated each question with respect and dignity and clarified many misconceptions.

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Girls entered the course with greater curiosity and interest. They were also shy and embarrassed, but shared some questions out loud rather than writing them down.  They presented a lot of direct and formal questions. Many of them were concerned about the process of pregnancy, asking about the situations when a woman can be pregnant and also how to avoid health issues they’ve seen their peers face in pregnancy and parenthood.  Most of the girls in the community know they are already destined to become wives and mothers, and only if they are lucky they will find a non-alcoholic or violent man.  

Access to contraceptive methods and advice are very limited to adolescents. It is known in the rural area that girls are frequently denied birth control at health centers unless accompanied by a man. The facilitators explained the right use of condoms to the students, thought they are not available in the community.

To educate these adolescents about their sexual and reproductive health and rights could make a difference in their lives.  It is our goal to let them know about the options and possibilities they have and hopefully to be able to stop abuses, make better decisions and become more free and happy people.  

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