My Body, My Life, My Decision, My Rights

Mike Clulow | Dec 20, 2016
Youth change agents in Potosí
Mike Clulow, our Policy and Programmes Officer, recently visited Bolivia where our partners are training and supporting young people, teachers, parents and health providers to challenge the taboos surrounding sexual and reproductive rights and to oppose violence against women and girls.

Yes, we do talk about this! ¡De eso, sí se habla!

Sex is central to our lives and our identities but it is also a minefield, in particular for adolescents who are beginning to discover and explore their sexuality. So it is really important that they are well informed and have the confidence and freedom to use that information in ways that allow them to express themselves and live their sexuality with dignity and security.

Unfortunately, most people – parents, teachers, service providers, politicians, religious and community leaders - are too embarrassed or outright opposed to talking with young people about these matters. Young people themselves are also often embarrassed to discuss these issues and can fall prey to misinformation and worse. That’s as true in Bolivia as in most other countries but now hundreds of young people are saying publically “Yes, we do talk about that!”.

Young people promoting their rights

Since 2012, with funding from the Big Lottery, Womankind has supported the work of the Bolivian “Body and Citizenship Consortium” to promote the sexual and reproductive rights of young people, especially women, and to prevent violence against women and girls. Women’s rights organisation, Centro de Promocion de Mujer Gregoria Apaza (CPMGA), along with three other national and local NGOs, Centro de Investigación, Educación y Servicios, Vivir Juntos and Equipo de Comunicación Alternativa con Mujeres, carry out a wide range of work targeting school students, parents, teachers, health services and public authorities.

At the heart of this work, is the training of adolescent girls and boys between 13 and 19 and their organisation in groups that take the message to their peers and actively participate in raising awareness and lobbying. These “change agents” give talks in schools and health clinics and meet with parents and teachers. They produce radio programmes, write and perform sketches, run information stands at public events and participate in demonstrations. They have conducted social audits of public health services, presented the results to service providers and officials and lobbied for change.

In October, I visited the project partners in El Alto, Potosí and Santa Cruz, and met with dozens of the change agents there and during a national workshop in La Paz.

Young people are agents for change

The young people I met discussed these subjects with refreshing openness and enthusiastically described the positive response to their work. Many teachers are changing their attitudes and behaviour and have become actively involved through giving classes on sexual and reproductive rights, encouraging the change agents and joining local networks. In the health sector, a number of clinics around the country have begun to provide “Differentiated Integrated Health Services for Adolescents”, mandated by law but infrequently implemented in practice. Change agents reported greater access to birth control methods and some positive changes in the way chemists treat adolescents.

The change agents are also receiving the recognition of local and regional authorities. They have begun to receive direct invitations to take part in diverse municipal and departmental spaces, the El Alto group has made a formal agreement with the city mayor and, in Potosí, the change agents have influenced the development of local law proposals.

These changes are recognised by health workers and officials, teachers and the parents of the change agents. Doctors and health service officials in Potosí and Santa Cruz confirmed that they now accept that young people have a role to play in relation to services and are coordinating with the change agents in some areas. In Potosí, they said that they see a difference in teenagers from schools targeted by the project, with more attending the clinic and being more open in their questions.

Teachers and parents I met in Santa Cruz admitted their initial reticence but are now clearly on board. Parents of the Potosí change agents were very positive about the project, vigorously stressing the importance of dealing with the issues and proud about the changes they have seen in their children. The father of one agent declared “this is very beautiful work; it is lovely that these issues are being talked about”.

Youth, empowered

Perhaps the most important area of change, because it provides great hope that the work can continue and grow, is the personal change experienced by the agents themselves. Among the many changes they highlighted were the personal exercise of their sexual and reproductive rights, greater self-esteem and empowerment, increased social commitment and empathy, better relations with their parents, the ability and confidence to speak out in public, better decision-making and leadership abilities. In group discussions and individual interviews, they showed real commitment, consistently indicating that they are going to carry on with this work.

These changes are not complete; it is work in progress. Nevertheless, the changes so far are impressive and charged with a momentum that the consortium members and the change agents themselves will use to take the work to new levels and to spread the determination that young people’s sexual and reproductive rights are fully respected.

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