Unsure how to talk to your teenager about sex? Jean-Pierre Bouaka, an accounting student at the University of Lomé, Togo, can help. He is a young man who wears many hats. He is a student, graphic designer, treasurer of the Youth Action Movement of the Togolese Association of Family Welfare— and best of all, youth champion in the field of sexual and reproductive health.
A Champion with a Mission
Becoming a youth champion was an obvious decision because where he grew up, sexuality and behaviors that can lead to sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy were not daily topics of conversation.
In my community, topics concerning sexual and reproductive health are [considered] taboo. People cannot easily discuss these topics. It’s a big challenge because not talking about it only makes things worse,” he said.
In his home country of Togo, 17% of young women give birth before the age of 18.1 Meanwhile, more than half of married women aged 15-49 aren’t using an effective method of contraception.2 Although talking to young people about sex is not easy for adults, it’s essential for keeping them safe, healthy, and well-informed to make important decisions. So, when Jean-Pierre was told by a friend (who was already a youth champion) that the USAID Amplify Family Planning and Sexual Reproductive Health (AmplifyPF) project was recruiting and training new youth champions, he jumped at the opportunity. Changing the perception of socially sensitive issues among adolescents, parents, and health providers became his mission.
USAID AmplifyPF is a five-year multi-country project implemented by Pathfinder International and its partners, which expands access to quality family planning services and strengthens service delivery in poor and underserved urban areas in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Togo. Part of this work includes investing in young leaders to:
- champion sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR);
- address harmful attitudes and biases; and
- remove barriers to reproductive health care for young people.
Across all four West African countries, the project has trained 118 youth champions, 30 specifically in Togo. Training youth champions is a vital strategy of USAID AmplifyPF to advance the SRHR of young people, improve health outcomes, and reduce unintended pregnancies.
Getting Young People and Adults to have “The Talk”
USAID AmplifyPF engages youth, like Jean-Pierre, supporting them to take the lead in advancing SRHR. And Jean-Pierre understood the assignment. After being trained and mentored by USAID AmplifyPF and West Africa Breakthrough ACTION (WABA), now he is raising awareness among peers and referring them to youth-friendly health centers when they need reproductive health counseling and services. He also works hard to teach parents, health providers, and young people to have healthy conversations about sex, using innovative activities like Empathways—an empathy-building card game.
“Empathways is not just a simple game. You easily talk about things that are considered taboo,” he said.
Empathways is a tool used by USAID AmplifyPF, originally developed by Breakthrough ACTION and Research—a partnership led by the John Hopkins Center for Communication Programs in collaboration with Save the Children, ThinkPlace, ideas42, Camber Collective, International Center for Research on Women, and Viamo. It is a card activity organized around important health discussions and scenarios, which facilitates communication between young people and adults to break taboos around discussing SRHR. Most importantly, Empathways builds empathy and respect between young people and adults about healthy sexual development. Empathways consists of three rounds:3
- Open up: Help participants develop rapport
- Discover: Explore the factors that impact family planning attitudes and service delivery
- Connect: Reflect on service delivery scenarios and commit to improving youth family planning service delivery
As a facilitator, Jean-Pierre creates a comfortable and safe space for the participants (the health provider/parent and young person) to open up and get to know one another, build trust, and commit to being compassionate not only toward the young person in front of them, but toward all young people in their community.
From Stigma to Empathy
This is exactly the kind of commitment Agossi Sokou, a 45-year-old mother of two from Dabada Kondji—a district in Lomé—has promised to uphold. In her community, early and unintended pregnancies is a big challenge.
“Young girls and boys indulge in sexual intercourse very early. This is socially very worrying,” she said.
This year, she was invited by Jean-Pierre to participate in a game of Empathways in the precincts of her church. After completing the activity, she better understood the challenges that youth face.
“Empathways is more than a card game. It is a powerful means of raising parents’ awareness of their duty of empathy and solidarity toward young people and adolescents in their critical moment of sexual and reproductive life. Today, I am willing and open to [have] discussions about reproductive health, not only with my [sons], but with all young people and adolescents who need listening, understanding, and guidance for a healthy and responsible sex life,” said Agossi.
Youth champions like Jean-Pierre are making a strong impact by creating an environment of empathy. Youth engagement, leadership, and peer education are important components for tackling the stigma that is hindering young people from accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Jean-Pierre agrees.
The needs of young people are immense. To address reproductive health challenges, [health] projects must recruit many young champions to reach as many young people as possible,” he said.
His goal is to reach all young people in his community and equip them with the tools and knowledge they need to live healthy lives.
Learn more about USAID AmplifyPF.
1 International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2021
2 Guttmacher Institute, 2021
3 Breakthrough ACTION + RESEARCH for Social Behavior Change, 2022