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Girls in school in Matola, Mozambique

The Road to Gender Equality—Reaching Young Adolescents

The girls thought menstruation was a disease.

The boys thought it was okay to beat women in certain situations to make them “stay in line.”

What I heard from these boys and girls should have shocked me, but it didn’t.

I grew up in a family and a community where people lacked even basic knowledge about sexual and reproductive health.

Girls were raised to be submissive. Boys were raised to lead.

I grew up in a country where almost half of girls are mothers or pregnant by the time they are 19.

Can we change this?

I joined Pathfinder a little over a year ago to try. Since I became a Pathfinder, I’ve been promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescents and youth in Matola, Mozambique.

As part of Pathfinder’s Junt@s project in Matola, I held discussions with 14- to 19-year-old girls and boys, who shared the opinions above with us. The project started by working with these students from secondary school to understand their perceptions about and attitudes toward sexual and reproductive health and gender equality. Our experience solidified our understanding of the need for early interventions with primary school students (ages 10-14), which were already planned. The project now works with students from both secondary schools and primary schools to ensure we reach adolescents early, before their beliefs become defined and behaviors more difficult to change.

The girls, during these these discussions, recognized that men and women are equal, however, they acknowledged that women are still prescribed certain responsibilities in the household that may prevent them from realizing their full potential. They agreed that men still have the final say.

‘’Society doesn’t believe in our capacities,” said one girl.

None of these girls understood how menstruation works, or when they could become pregnant.

Boys said they felt pressured to lose their virginity and consume alcohol.

Since the initial discussions, the Junt@s project addressed these misconceptions and restrictive norms by engaging young adolescents in discussions led by mentor teachers to learn about changes during adolescence, gender equality, and decision making.

I recently interviewed boys and girls, and parents and “mentor teachers” of these young adolescents to better understand how the project is influencing their lives.

I discovered that girls like to learn about menstruation. Girls who did not have their periods were glad to learn because they felt prepared and comfortable about telling an adult when they began menstruating. Girls who already had their periods described it as a scary event and regretted not getting information beforehand.

Boys said it was important to talk about puberty and early pregnancy and its consequences. Most of them do not discuss these issues with their parents and were happy to have a safe space for these conversations.

Some boys and girls said that they now look at gender roles in their households differently.

“Girls in the group felt that they experienced more discrimination compared to their brothers,” said Felicidade, a teacher.

Boys and girls brought the discussion home, questioning their parents. Some boys said they were becoming role models for their younger brothers by showing them that they should not discriminate against girls and that household chores can be shared.

Antonio, a teacher who facilitates sessions for boys’ groups, told me that he is noticing a more responsible attitude in some of the boys and that boys are missing less classes as they think about their futures.

“I have seen many boys getting lost during puberty.  They start dating, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and they get spoiled.  Gender equality is not something really addressed in the school yet,” said Antonio.

Antonio agrees that addressing gender disparities at this early stage of development is key.

Like Antonio, I’m happy to be by the side of the next generation as they develop more gender-equitable attitudes and lead healthier lifestyles.

My work with Pathfinder is how I’m doing it.

Belmasia Eugenio is a community organizer who works with the Junt@s project in Mozambique.