LA GRECIA, Matagalpa—In Nicaragua, a country where most people identify as Catholic or Evangelical Christian, sex education is a delicate topic. Yet it has a critical impact on young people’s health and sexual and reproductive rights.
Nicaragua has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Latin America, and a staggeringly high rate of sexual violence against girls—two-thirds of reported rapes are committed against girls under 17.
Now, as a starting point to address these problems, an innovative project is asking kids and young people what they know about sex and sexuality.
The work of the Center for Education in Health and Environment (CESESMA) includes education on gender, identity, and the environment. Now the San Ramón-based NGO is working to develop a comprehensive sex-education program.
Their goals are radical: to empower young people and to foster activism in their communities. By empowerment, the group aims to get girls to know their rights and defend them.
In CESESMA’s consultancies, young people select problems that affect their community and survey their peers. Then they develop an action plan, and CESESMA supports them to carry it out.
I recently traveled to the rural community of La Grecia, in northern Nicaragua, to observe CESESMA’s consultancy program in action.
The community is a half hour by bus from Matagalpa, up winding dirt roads into the heart of coffee country. A dozen consultants ranging in age from 11 to 14 gathered after school for the final day of interviews.
Earlier in the process, facilitators trained the young people in the consultancy process, and on the themes of sex and sexuality. Then the consultants designed the survey for their peers.
While CESESMA usually asks young people to frame their own investigations, in this case they proposed the critical issue of sexuality.
Harry Shier, of CESESMA, emphasizes, “In Nicaragua, sexual abuse and sexual violence against children is widespread, some say endemic, so children need to be able to protect themselves from these risks.”
Despite statistics that show sexual activity beginning at an increasingly younger age, there is little consensus about how to address sexuality with children.
CESESMA’s goal is to find out what children and pre-adolescents already know about the issues, and then find out want else they want to know. Based on that information, they help develop an effective curriculum for sex education for kids.
I tagged along with three consultants, Josselin, Letys, and Paula, as they interviewed their peers. I followed Letys to the doorway of a small, adobe house. Fourteen year old Maria came to the door, and smilingly agreed to be surveyed.
First Letys asked, “What do you know about sexuality?” Maria responded, “It’s something between two people.”
There were long pauses between Letys’ confident questions and Maria’s soft answers.
Next Letys asked, “Do you know what your sexual rights are?” Maria responded, “I don’t know.” Maria said she didn’t know what her reproductive rights are either.
Yet when Letys asked Maria what she would like to know about sexual and reproductive rights, she did have an answer: “Their importance, methods.”
The lack of detail in Maria’s responses is typical for children and adolescents in Nicaragua. While the national curriculum officially includes sexual education starting in primary school, it’s not taught consistently.
Critics say what is taught focuses on sexual biology, and doesn’t address the most important needs of kids and teens, like how to prevent pregnancy or sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).
A recent study by the Center for Investigations and Studies on Health found that 28% of adolescents are sexually active. The same study revealed that 75% of sexually active teenagers use no contraception. Less than half of those who do use protection use condoms.
Maria’s replies show young Nicaraguans’ desire to know more about sex and sexuality, even while lacking the vocabulary to ask questions.
Nearly forty of the seventy young people who participated in the consultancy met one day in an open-sided rancho to share their experiences. Their mission: analyze their peers’ responses and make recommendations to CESESMA.
Working in small groups with consultants from other communities, the adolescents first shared what they learned themselves.
One young woman explained, “Now I understand that sexuality is how we dress, how we love ourselves.”
An adolescent boy said, “I learned that sexuality is something it’s OK to talk about.”
A girl shared, “I learned sexual rights are that we have the right to enjoy ourselves, to dress however we want, even if the boys say we look ugly, or make fun of us.”
For the young consultants, the importance of becoming informed about sexuality was mostly framed in terms of their own knowledge and understanding of their bodies, identities, and choices.
Yet some consultants brought up kids’ needs to know their rights in order to protect themselves.
Jorleny, 12, explained, “In our future many people will try to trick us and it’s important we know the meaning of things, so if someone tries to trick us they can’t.”
Felix Pedro, also 12, echoed, “Kids need to know that they have rights, and that no one can violate their rights, not their parents or their siblings.”
After more discussion in groups, the consultants made their recommendations to CESESMA.
Several groups mentioned the importance of being able to talk about sex and sexuality with their parents. One group suggested, “If a girl is abused, she needs to talk about it and not keep silent. She should tell her mother.”
A common suggestion was that CESESMA offer training for parents so they “would understand it’s not vulgar to talk about sex and sexuality.”
Another group requested that parents “take care of their kids so they aren’t abused.”
The young consultants also requested workshops for young people so they could ask questions and learn more about sex and sexuality.
Through their official recommendations to CESESMA, the consultants fully assumed their roles as change-makers in their communities.
Many of the young people emphasized how much they liked interviewing their peers. Listening to the kids and teens in their communities completed the circle of trust initiated by CESESMA.
Says 12 year-old Jaliksa, “They trusted us and answered what they thought, without being afraid. And no one interrupted them.”