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Sexual Health Education for Young Women in Rwanda

#artisans, #impact, #community, #education, #programs, #vocationaltraining

75% of adolescents who live with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are girls. Research by the U.N. shows that social, cultural, and economic factors—including gender inequality, gender-based violence, lack of financial independence, and lack of access to sexual education—can make young women especially vulnerable.

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Last year, we at Indego Africa expanded our work with artisans in Rwanda to include a new focus on empowering youth. We launched a Vocational Training program to help young, unemployed women in rural Rwanda—a highly vulnerable population—build careers in the artisan sector through technical training and business education.

The goal of this program was to help young women gain critically-needed employment opportunities and earn sustainable income. However, after the program started, we discovered another critical need: sexual health education. 

While a group of Vocational Trainees were learning to sew at the

Abasangiye Cooperative in Rwanda, they overheard older members of the cooperative talking about their HIV treatment. The young women became worried that they could be infected through pin pricks while sewing and immediately raised their concerns with our Education Manager in Rwanda. 

Through conversations between our Rwanda team and the Vocational

Trainees, we recognized that these young women needed training on HIV prevention and transmission, as well as sexual health education more broadly. They were concerned about their health, specifically about HIV/AIDS, but did not have sufficient information about how to protect themselves.

We firmly believe that women and girls around the world deserve

access to relevant, comprehensive sexual health education in order to make informed decisions about their bodies and their health. According to UN AIDS, in sub-Saharan Africa only 28% of young women report that they have sufficient knowledge about how to protect themselves from HIV. 

Further,

in 2015, 7.3% of adolescent girls in Rwanda experienced a teenage pregnancy (up 20% from 2010), a statistic driven by a lack of knowledge about reproductive health, as well as access to health services.

To

address these critical knowledge gaps, we set up Sexual Health Training workshops for all of the young women participating in our Vocational Training

program and invited our older artisan partners to join as well. The course, taught by an experienced female Rwandan health trainer, focused on HIV/AIDS and STI transmission, prevention, and symptoms, but also incorporated lessons on gender-based violence and reproductive health and care. 

The instructor provided the young women with guidance about how to discuss sexual health with partners—conversations which can be challenging, especially when unequal gender roles or financial dependence come into play—and also encouraged them to be proactive about “knowing their status” through regular check ups and blood tests.

For

some of the students, the workshop was the first time they had ever learned about sexual health in an educational setting. Others had received sexual health education before, but often in less detail. The workshop gave them an opportunity to learn about these topics in a safe, positive environment and to ask as many questions as they needed. Further, for the older women, the training gave them important guidance on how to talk with their children about these issues.

“It’s

so important that we get this training while we are young,” a 23-year-old workshop participant, Jennifer, said. “The youth are the ones who have a poor understanding about sexual relations here in Rwanda, especial girls of my age. Many get pregnant or get HIV because they do not have this information.”

Another positive (and

heartwarming!) outcome of the training was that it helped sensitize the participants to the experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS and the need for empathy. One 19-year-old woman, Liliane, said: 

The

most important thing I learned is to take care of HIV/AIDS positive people. We should never exclude them.” 

As we strive to create a

world in which young women and girls can reach their full potential, it is crucial that they have access to information about their health. Moving forward, we are committed to continuing our Sexual Health Training program for young women and expanding the curriculum to cover reproductive health, a topic which several of the participants asked for. In our mission to achieve gender equality and empower women knowledge is a powerful, and necessary, first step.  

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