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Promoting gender equality and healthy behaviors among very young adolescents

At 24 years old, I am part of a ‘young’ country—a country where the majority of the population is under 25. In Mozambique, 66% of the population is under 25, meaning that the majority of the population is still growing up! 

We know that adolescence is a critical phase in one’s life.  During adolescence we experience myriad biological, emotional, and social changes. In 2016, the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing described the triple benefit of investing in adolescents and youth: for the adolescents and youth they are today, for the adults they will be, and for the new generation they will engender.

The author (Amelia) during a film project at primary school in Maputo province. Picture by Belmasia Eugenio

 

In Mozambique, we face many challenges. Almost half of Mozambican girls marry before 18 years old; 46% of adolescent girls aged 15-19 are already mothers or are pregnant; and, almost 10% of adolescents live with HIV. But young people are not just a problem. We are an opportunity. Positive mentoring and supervision when people are young can contribute to the development of key capacities and skills for successful and healthy lives.

That is what the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Mozambique recognized when they supported Pathfinder to implement the Junt@s Project. Junt@s, which means ‘Together Boys and Girls,’ worked to promote gender equality and the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents in four provinces of Mozambique.

A young girl participates in Junt@s activities. Picture by Estrella Alcalde

 

Through Junt@s, we worked with older adolescents (15-19) as well as with very young adolescents (10-14) in primary schools. Working with very young adolescents is, for me, one of the most remarkable ways to address behavior change. At this age, boys and girls can begin to identify and question gender inequalities; identify and reflect on toxic masculinities, attitudes, and behaviors; improve knowledge about their bodies; and prepare for the changes they will go through during adolescence.

We have a saying in Mozambique—‘’covering the sun with a sieve’’—that loosely translates to “brush it under the carpet.” At times, I feel we pretend that pre-adolescents do not need this critical information.

But the reality is that in Mozambique, 25% of adolescents start their sexual activity before 15. At the same time, they do not know about or cannot access contraception. Just 14% of 15-19 years old use a modern contraceptive method in Mozambique today. That’s why programs like Junt@s are so critical.

Junt@s worked with 5th to 7th grade students in 20 primary schools within Cabo Delgado, Inhambane, Gaza, and Maputo provinces. We used an interactive approach with participatory activities that included discussions, games, and film screenings facilitated by mentor teachers that encouraged dialogue about sexual and reproductive health, gender equality, rights, gender-based violence, anatomy and life skills issues.

In 2019, to assess the success of our activities with very young adolescents, we interviewed male and female students and their parents or guardians and held focus groups with mentor teachers. Their responses show how the Junt@s project helped open their eyes to the possibility of overcoming rigid gender roles. Students said they learned about topics that were not being addressed at home or in school, and most students expressed that gender equality was a new topic for them. The findings show powerful learnings and the need for these kinds of interventions.

A boys group at the Matola (Maputo province) primary school. Picture by Belmasia Eugenio

 

The testimonials:

On gender equality/division of labor:

  • “I learnt that we cannot let our sisters work alone.”
  • “I learnt that we are all equal and we can play together, cook, wash, fetch water together, and that women should be respected. We are all equal.”

On bodily autonomy and puberty:

  • “I didn’t know when menstruation started or how I should take care of myself.”
  • “Now that we talked about menstruation, I can calmly wait for it; and when it comes, I just have to say: mum!”

On discriminating against those with HIV:

  • ’I liked to learn about HIV prevention and how to respect others. We cannot discriminate against a person with this disease.”
  • “The group helped me change my views, that I cannot despise people with AIDS.”

On using health facilities:

  • “I learnt that we cannot be ashamed, because it is shame that can make us sicker and can take us to death.”
  • “I would feel more comfortable to go to hospital now since now I know more about everything.”

On goals for the future:

  • “The activities helped me think on what I want to become as an adult: finish my studies, not start dating very early, graduate.”
  • “In the first semester I wasn’t studying well. Now, after the groups that has changed; I pay attention in classes because in the future I want to become a teacher.”

A teacher facilitates a girls group in the primary school (Gaza province). Picture from Pathfinder International.

 

And, what have I learned from this experience?

I have seen how Junt@s has contributed to students’ learning process and their questioning of unequal norms and how this has shed light on taboos and misconceptions. Most adolescents come from families where social norms and beliefs dictate that men hold the power. It is important that we address these harmful norms and beliefs among very young adolescents by provoking reflection and transforming the way they see gender roles in their households and communities.

By educating very young adolescents about gender equality and sexual and reproductive health, we are improving their minds, their health, and their futures for a more egalitarian, safe, and healthy society.