Breaking Taboos in Congo

By Alia McKee, Sea Change Strategies for PSI

If you want to find Helene, go to the community center in her neighborhood. That’s where she spends most of her afternoons and weekends. Wearing smart glasses, a sharp blazer and a genuine smile, Helene goes from room to room, greeting teens and doing what teens do best — hanging out.

Helene is in her final year of university, where she is majoring in international rights. She wants to be an activist, but also aspires to be a role model for young people in Kinshasa. That’s why she works at the community center. “I lead groups and I talk one-on-one with students about what’s on their minds.”

And there’s one thing that’s on all their minds.

“They are very curious about sex,” she says.

Helene is part of Passages, a USAID-funded project that aims to take on the underlying challenges to sexual and reproductive health not only by working with adolescents but also by addressing the attitudes and expectations of community members who can help young people achieve their dreams or limit their horizons.

Passages is training healthcare providers, religious leaders, and young leaders like Helene to talk to teens about sexual health and family planning, with a goal to lay the groundwork for life-long health and well-being. Helene participated in a training led by the Association de Santé Familiale (ASF), Population Services International’s affiliate network member in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The training prepared Helene to serve as a youth ambassador for work with young people in her community, healthcare providers, religious leaders, and the Ministry of Health.

“During the training, I learned about things my parents didn’t have courage to tell me. You see, in our culture, speaking about sexual things is taboo. It’s a huge challenge.”

And this isn’t uncommon. Passages focuses its efforts on reducing myths and stigma related to sex, relationships and family planning. Young people’s understanding of their loved one’s expectations of how they should behave plays a big role in shaping their sexual and reproductive choices.

Before the workshop, Helene wasn’t sure how best to answer questions the kids in her community raised about sex. Now she feels confident. “I learned how to talk about sexual violence. And I also learned important things about family planning that I can share with both boys and girls.”

Helene says being part of Passages has helped her deepen her own knowledge so she can be a better mentor for young people and advocate for their needs and rights.

“Being a teenager is confusing. I’m here to help.”

sexual-health-drc

Passages project, led by the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University in partnership with FHI 360, JHU’s Global Early Adolescent Study, PSI, Save the Children and Tearfund, aims to address a broad range of social norms, at scale, to achieve sustained improvements in family planning and sexual and reproductive health. This research project is building the evidence base and contributing to the capacity of the global community to strengthen normative environments that support positive family planning and sexual and reproductive health, especially among very young adolescents, newly married couples, and first-time parents. In DRC, Passages’ Transforming Masculinitites/Masculinite, Famille, et Foi study promotes positive masculinity and gender equality through congregations and religious leaders.