Update on my work here
When I asked people why girls do not finish school here, one reason everybody gave was “undesired pregnancy.” I also found that, in the Burkinabè culture, people don’t talk about sex. Because of the cultural taboo, it is hard for parents to talk to their children about sexuality including, talking about avoiding unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Even with America’s openness about sex, I think it is hard for parents to start this kind of discussion.
In January we had two weeks of in-service training. For three days a counterpart of our choice joined us for the discussions. I invited the Inspector for the schools in my area to come and, together, we decided the problem of unwanted pregnancy would be a good problem to take on. He told me that the school curriculum did not address issues of sexuality until the equivalent of 10th grade, which is much too late for many girls. First of all, only the brightest and most motivated get that far in school. Second, many unwanted pregnancies are among girls in late primary school or early junior high. I thought a good place to begin would be meetings with girls in the last year of primary school and their mothers, giving some basics to get the conversation started. When I got back to my village I talked to the people at the maternity clinic (where I go twice a week to help weigh babies) and they told me that the sage-femme (the midwife), was the person to talk to about sex education and AIDS prevention. She was enthusiastic and happy to help.
I needed a local person for several reasons. First of all, my French is only so-so and all I can do in the local language is give greetings and make people laugh at my attempts. Many of the parents have not been to school and do not understand French, so someone to translate ideas into Moore was important. Also, a goal of all our projects is to make them self-sustaining. By having a Burkinabè counterpart work with me on this, my hope is that a sex education program for the schools may continue after I leave, with the schools and the maternity center working out the plan.
One of the things we got at the in-service training was a kit to help with AIDS prevention education, including a flip book of pictures, a supply of male condoms, and a wood model of the male sex organ for demonstrations (thanks to USAID). The pictures are quite graphic and the wood penis is a bit shocking for people who don’t even talk about sex.
I wanted to start with the primary school that is in the center of town. I talked to the Director (principal) of the school and he seemed a bit reluctant, but willing to think about the idea. We decided the thing to do was to have a meeting with the officers of the parents' associations and see what they thought. After introductions, we began the meeting with me giving the general idea in French. I asked my counterpart to translate that and she took off and did the whole presentation in Moore. I just made a few comments to show how graphic the materials are and to do the condom demonstration. I did not understand most of what she said, but I did get the discussion about the fact that Islam and the Catholic Church agree that people should be abstinent before marriage and oth bdisapprove of condoms. I was really glad that on my list of things we would talk about I had put abstinence as the first way to avoid unwanted pregnancy. We all agree that would be best, but the reality of teen pregnancy is pretty clear and if kids are going to break one tenant of your religion (no sex before marriage) isn’t it better for them to break the other (no condom use) and not only avoid unwanted pregnancy but also protect themselves from AIDS?
The bottom line was that the parents decided it would be OK to have this program for the girls, with me and my counterpart, but they thought a man should talk to the boys. We began with the girls and so far have had programs at two primary schools and one junior high school with a total of 145 girls and 24 mothers attending. I should explain that, while I am calling it junior high, it is really the 7th through 10th year of school. On the attendance list for the junior high I asked for ages and they ranged from 12 to 22, so it is not like a junior high in the US. The midwife and I have dates to talk at another primary school, the other junior high, and the Lycée, which combines junior high and high school on the same campus. Here are a couple of pictures, one of me talking to the students and one of me and the midwife. After the presentation we have a little question and answer session to test their comprehension and for a review of the ideas, in which we use the rough sketches you see behind us.
I asked the head of the health service here if he would find a man to work with me for a program for the boys and fathers, but when I first approached him he had just arrived in town and did not know his staff. A week or so ago I asked him again and he drafted one of the men who works for him who is the equivalent of a practical nurse. I thought he might just do the presentation without me, but he wanted me there, which was fine. We have done one program so far, at a primary school, and it did not seem to bother the boys that I was present. I hope we can get to the boys in all the schools before the summer vacation. In addition to the information on HIV/AIDS, we hope to give the boys the message that they are responsible for any children they father and they should avoid having that burden, but I am not sure they get it. Culturally, it is up to the girl to deal with it if she is having a baby. Maybe the HIV piece will encourage condom use and have some effect on the undesired pregnancy problem. I am sure a soap opera like I described before, including these themes, will be much more effective than my little presentation, but something is better than nothing.
People here actually have heard quite a bit about HIV/AIDS and the official figures show a less than 2% incidence. There are people here living with HIV, and even special programs about respecting the rights of people living with HIV. There are special scholarships for children affected by HIV/AIDS because of the loss of one or both parents, or loss of income for the family because of the illness. There have been major educational efforts on radio and TV, and in posters you may see from time to time, to educate people about using protection to stay healthy. There was a program for students in the fall at the Lycée and the junior high schools, allowing them to have a blood test and getting a report about their HIV status. So, they know about it. Will they protect themselves? I can only give them the information and hope it encourages behavior to protect themselves.