Tucked away in Granada’s labyrinth of colorful streets, Kelly Pope of Fútbol Sin Fronteras (Soccer Without Borders) draws diagrams of ovaries and drafts lesson plans about sexual health.
“The two main goals of our NGO are to keep kids in school and to prevent pregnancies,” says the 22-year-old former college soccer player from Massachusetts. “But when I arrived in Granada last year, I noticed we don’t talk about sex, sexual health or sexual consequences, which I thought was contradictory to one of our main missions.”
As Pope investigated why the topic was avoided, she realized she was battling deeply rooted cultural barriers.
“Talking about sex is taboo,” says the recent Bowdoin College graduate, who is interning with Fútbol Sin Fronteras. “Perhaps it is Nicaragua’s strong religious influences or machismo, but it’s barely talked about in homes, and not taught correctly in schools.”
Pope saw the situation as an opportunity for Fútbol Sin Fronteras, an international organization that uses soccer and education to empower girls. Now she’s designing workshops to educate the girls on topics from puberty and menstruation, and the differences between love and abuse, good touches and bad.
“The girls are really curious, but they have no idea about sexual issues,” Pope says. “One girl asked us whether she was pregnant because she often felt tired. When we asked if she had ever had sex, she said no. The link between sex and pregnancy was unclear (to her).”
The information the girls are getting in school isn’t much better. Alejandra, 11, said she was taught that if a girl has sex before her period, she could die. She said the girls are taught to cover up to not provoke rape.
Pope’s efforts to introduce basic sex education were first met with opposition from her organization’s Nicaraguan staff. But after some discussion, they eventually gave her the go-ahead.
“At first, there was a fear that if we talked about sex we would be promoting it, or that the parents would pull their girls out of the soccer program. It was like, ‘We can talk about puberty and hygiene, but we can’t talk about that’,” Pope said. “But the topic kept coming up, and after awhile they said it would be a good thing to talk about because the girls ask often.”
With Latin America’s highest teen pregnancy rate—one in four pregnancies in Nicaragua are among girls ages 15 to 19, and birthrates among girls under 14 nearly doubled between 2000 and 2009, according to government statistics—more needs to be done to combat the taboo mentality, said Urania Ruiz, director of sexual education advocacy for Profamilia, a reproductive health organization in Nicaragua.
“Very few families in Nicaragua talk about sexual issues; from a very young age, we are taught that talking about sex is bad and prohibited, partly because it’s been that way for generations and passed on,” Ruiz said. She says religious factors also contribute to the situation.
Non-governmental organizations play a key role in supplementing the lack of information about sex education, Urania says.
“Many positive changes in youth are seen as a result of NGO projects,” Urania says. “The girls show more empowerment on issues of sexuality and are more capable of handling their sexual relationships and talking about the issue with their parents.”
Pope hopes that the optional workshops will offer the girls more information about the changes they are experiencing with their bodies, and the consequences of sexual encounters. She says she will try to teach the girls while remaining sensitive to their cultural context.
“It’s a fine line between imposing a belief and teaching proven health methods,” she said. “Some girls refuse to play soccer when they have their period, for example. Tampon use is a controversial topic because if a girl uses a tampon she is considered to no longer be a virgin. These are cultural beliefs that are different from my own.”
The girls respond
Thirteen-year-old soccer player Lizbeth says she is excited for the sex-education workshops to start.
“I want to learn how to take care of my body and understand what I’m going through; and I want to be prepared,” she said.
Lizbeth says she knows girls younger than her who have already had sex.
Lizbeth’s mother is also supportive of the workshops. “In school, the students receive an overview, but there is still a lack of information and many kids don’t have enough communication with their parents,” she says. “I think they will receive useful information and I trust the trainers from Fútbol Sin Fronteras.”
Fútbol Sin Fronteras Program Director Larkin Brown says a handful of parents support the workshops, but she says she is nervous about how the rest of the parents will perceive their sex-ed efforts. Still, she thinks the risk is worth it.
“Teen pregnancy rates are so high here that there is a very clear need for access to more information. In other countries it is commonplaces for these types of conversations to happen at home and school, but here it’s different,” Brown says.
“It is important to be careful in a culture that is machista and has reservations about talking about sex, but giving correct information with no opinion attached is worth the risk,” she said.