Almost one-third of the Senegalese population is between 10 and 24 – the age in which most people become sexually active. However, sexuality education is very limited, which makes young people vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies, HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. They have limited access to health information, especially on sexual and reproductive health.
“We are a conservative country. Talking about sex is taboo. Most families and schools are not properly prepared to discuss or teach anything about sex. And youth don’t know where to get information”, explains Aminata Traore Seck, public reproduction health expert at the ministry of Education in Senegal.
Aisha*, 16, student at Lycée Yoff Village, has been a member of an EVF club (Education Vie Familiale) at the high school for three years, and she discusses sex education and other matters in her science class and in EVF club meetings.
The Connecting 4 Life (C4L) program, launched in 2014 by Oxfam and Stop Aids Now in collaboration with the Senegalese ministry of Education, has been conceived to fill this gap through an innovative approach.
It helps teenagers learn about sexuality, reproductive health including birth control and HIV and AIDS. All information is provided in the social and cultural context of Senegal. The project uses internet and communication technology to teach them, through web-based narratives and text communication with trained counselors.
A safe space for discussion
Aisha*, 16, and Mamadou Thioye Diene, 19, are both high school students in Yoff, Dakar, and participants in the Connecting 4 Life program.
Aisha says young girls have all sorts of question about sex, puberty, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), AIDS… She comes from a very traditional Muslim family and cannot discuss any of these matters with her parents or other members of the family. “All these subjects are taboo”, she says. But when she becomes a mother she intends to discuss sex with her children because “it’s important for their life.”
Mamadou Thioye Diene, 19, student at Lycée Yoff Village, says some of the most interesting discussions are about how to actually talk with people about these subjects.
Young men have a lot of questions on how to avoid getting AIDS, how to use a condom, etc. For Diene, the EVF clubs (“Education Vie Familiale”) at school, organized by the C4L program, are a safe space for discussion. Outside, none of this can be talked about. “I think we need to keep this program going, to keep people aware of sexually transmitted diseases, so people can understand AIDS and they can discuss all that.”
To find all the answers to their questions, many students are interacting with “clickinfoado”, the website set up by Connecting 4 Life. It provides an e-learning program that improves the teaching of sexuality education as well as life skills, so that young people can make informed decisions.
“The ‘clickinfoado’ site has a lot of pictures and that helps to contextualize the social reality and implications”, explains Mohamed Aly Sonko, science teacher at Lycée Yoff Village, who has been involved with C4L at the school for three years.
Mohamed Aly Sonko, 37, science teacher at Lycée Yoff Village, Dakar, has been involved with Connecting 4 Life at the school for three years. He says he can report changes in behavior among students during this time.
“They can compare what I teach them in class with what they watch on the site. If you want them to retain a lesson, it helps to teach it with a movie. If you teach them in a more classical manner they won’t learn as fast. They are really interested in these stories.”
“I really like programs that put issues in the real context of the students’ life here in Yoff. When students learn lessons about sexuality, it’s different applying it in their real life. You can’t just get good grades, you have to navigate life in society. A lot of students here are excellent at studying but its hard to manage matters with their own families.”
C4L also offers a mobile phone platform that provides free 'on-demand' sexual and reproductive health information and services through counselors, to whom young people can send text messages. The service gets an average of 200 to 300 questions per month.
“We get a lot of questions about sexuality generally, interpersonal relations questions, STDs and how to prevent them. More frequently we get questions about menstruation, mostly along the lines of ‘what do I do?’”, says Aristote Mpombo, who manages the service. Many young women are at school and they are sort of intimidated. They don’t want to ask the teachers or other students these personal questions.”
C4L has a service that allows young people to send text messages to telecounselors, They work three days/week on a flexible schedule and get an average of 200 to 300 questions per month.
“For me the most difficult thing is to take charge of cases where a young person is raped by a family member. It’s hard to help them and we feel powerless in these cases. They have to take action themselves and we have to refer them to the right people to help them. But we can’t intervene directly. We only have a telephone number, with no name or location.”
Gender violence, rape, forced/child marriages get a lot of attention.
“It’s important to explain to girls that no one has the right to touch them like that. They need to learn that it only takes one time to get pregnant or get HIV, that’s why it’s important to teach them about their human rights so that they can protect them.” says Carmen Padonou, program manager at One World, another partner organization in the project.
The other issue of concern is early pregnancies. In Senegal, girls who become pregnant can’t attend school. Few go back after they give birth, only about 26 percent.
“We need to find a way to get them back in school, and we’re advocating for support for that. There are just too many barriers to education for girls, including pregnancy, domestic violence and violence against them in schools, arranged marriages, etc.” says Aminata Traore Seck.
Prevention, education and raising awareness among young people are a key part of achieving this. In this respect, the project also intends to advocate for more and better resources from the ministries of health and education in Senegal to be devoted to these subjects in schools, and to adopt more progressives policies related to teenage pregnancies among students.
* Name changed