It was more than 20 years ago now that I had one of many “aha” moments as a recent public health school graduate. I had been sent off to Zambia on one of my first ever professional overseas trips to interview women about breastfeeding and infant feeding practices. My instructions at the time were to interview and speak with new mothers in order to find out about infant feeding practices and explore ways to optimize their infant’s nutrition. It didn’t take long for one of the mothers to ask if her husband could participate in the interview. To her, it didn’t make any sense for me to be just speaking with her about such issues, when it was her husband who determined how to spend money on food and when she knew that she would need his support if she was going to be trying something different. Her perspective was that discussions about their infant’s nutrition were something that they should both be a part of and engage in together. Expecting her to be able to try out and possibly adopt a new practice on her own was unfair and unrealistic, I quickly realized.
Fast forward two decades to my current work at Advocates for Youth (Advocates) and this is a lesson that I still remind myself of when it comes to young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and positive youth development. In fact, if you think about it, programming that engages both boys and girls is fundamental to positive youth development. As defined by YouthPower, positive youth development is characterized by approaches that build skills, assets, and competencies; foster healthy relationships; strengthen the environment; and transform systems. We cannot get there without seeing the bigger picture – without a gender lens nor without inclusive and holistic programming.
For the past 16 years, I’ve been fortunate to be able to build programs at Advocates that integrate gender, taking into consideration that sometimes when working with adolescents and young people, it’s important to be able to offer spaces and programming that is specific to the needs of girls or boys, but not at the expense of excluding one over the other or of missing important opportunities for countering harmful gender norms that impact both. At the structural level in Burkina Faso, we have been purposeful about securing a gender balance in training facilitators, peer education supervisors, peer educators, village committee members, and teachers. Back in 2000, I have to admit that I stumbled upon this notion that having a gender-balanced training team could in fact help model and promote gender equitable relationships and counter gender stereotypes. I was training with my counterpart, who happened to be a man, when within a few days of training one of our youth leaders, Brigitte, approached me to say that seeing a woman take a leadership role and train on an equal level with a man had enabled her to see that such a thing was possible and had inspired her to want to do the same. It was not long thereafter, in fact, when she began to do just that--serving as a peer-educator in tandem with her co-peer educator, a young man whom we had also trained.
Taining of Trainers for Teachers on Sexuality Education, hosted by Advocates and UNESCO
Further, whether in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, or Asia, where Advocates has realized its primary international youth programming, many young people we work with have time and time again said that they want to engage in activities together. When we have had separate programming, inevitably boys want to know what the girls are doing and vice versa. Such a request does not necessarily mean that we should do away with separate, tailored efforts, which are important to address particular needs, vulnerabilities, and strengths. We have found, though, that it is important to listen to adolescents and young people and acknowledge their interest to learn together and about each other, provided a safe, supportive environment. For example, one of our programs in sub-Saharan Africa hosts girls and boys clubs for educating out-of-school adolescents about sexual and reproductive health. The clubs meet once a week, which serves to provide a safe space for them to express themselves, ask questions, and learn. In response to their request to learn about and with each other, once a month, the clubs now host joint sessions.
Examples of the benefits of engaging men and boys in our sexual and reproductive health and rights programing are numerous – whether it is the father who stands up for his 15 year-old daughter to convince her brothers to stop chastising her for the important peer education work she is doing (because he was a member of the village committee that helped shape the program); the young man who seeks counseling on family planning (who was a beneficiary of peer education outreach) because he does not want his girlfriend to get pregnant and have to drop out of school; or the future father (reached through social behavior change communication efforts) who no longer intends to have his daughter undergo female genital mutilation/cutting.
Advocates' Annual Youth Leadership Training, photo by Loyd Wolf
We have also been careful about ensuring gender balance within materials destined for young people and/or youth-serving professionals, such as teachers and service providers. Whether you are writing a lesson plan or a pamphlet, it’s important to include a gender balance (visual and written) so that both boys and girls are represented and content addresses their common and respective needs. For example, in Burkina Faso, teachers specifically requested a lesson plan on consequences of unintended pregnancy that would not just talk about the vulnerabilities and consequences for girls, but also for boys. As a result, Advocates adapted material from some of its domestic lesson plans in collaboration with local partners, which prompts students to explore the responsibilities of parenthood, needed resources, and the consequences of an early pregnancy from both perspectives.
Lastly, among our efforts to promote gender equality and gender-integrated programming at Advocates, we strive to work with our local partners to counter gender stereotypes but without inadvertently demonizing boys. For example, among some reviews of sexuality education materials conducted by Advocates for countries in East and Southern Africa, we have seen content that inadvertently reinforces gender stereotypes by demonizing young men in an effort to empower girls or educate about gender-based violence. With the balance potentially tipping against boys in some sectors and countries, as witnessed by lower secondary and/or tertiary school enrollment rates in Lesotho and Jamaica, it’s important to develop thoughtful gender-integrated programming that responds to adolescents and young people’s particular needs, acknowledges their realities, and supports a balanced perspective of hope and opportunity for all.