GARRY PIERRE-PIERRE · Haitian News
Part 3 in this five-part series explores sex education as part of comprehensive health care in Haiti.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — To Vilianie Jean, a 39-year-old mother of three, discussing sex with her daughter used to be simple.
“I don’t think a girl should know anything about sex,” Jean said during a meeting of parents and children at Profamil’s headquarters. “They should go to school and that’s it.”
But such rigid views have evolved. Jean is slowly relaxing to the point where she is broaching the subject with Lovely, her 17-year-old daughter.
“She tells me to stay away from boys because nothing good will come out of it,” Lovely said. Lovely is a bookworm who wants to be a doctor. “At school the girls call me a nun because I don’t talk about boys like they do.”
But Lovely acknowledged that discussing sex doesn’t mean getting involved in sexual activities — a distinction lost on parents. For too many, sex is a taboo issue not to be discussed with their children.
Such a message is what Profamil wanted to implant in young children, teenagers and parents minds when it started its Youth Empowerment Program couple of years ago. So every Friday, a group of 20 to 30 teenagers and their parents gather at various Profamil clinics where they discuss sexuality and the social and economic consequences of teenage pregnancies.
The organization’s staff was alarmed by a steep rise in teenage pregnancy across Port-au-Prince. Profamil felt that this issue should be addressed at its core by educating the youth, particularly the girls who were the most vulnerable. Compounding the problem is more than 20 years of political instability that has weakened almost every institution in the country. Government programs come and go with each administration, with no continuity. So issues like girls rights and women’s empowerment receive scant attention in a country where most basic needs are not being met adequately.
The earthquake that shattered Haiti in January 2010 left more than 3.7 million Haitians in need of humanitarian assistance. The quake not only leveled buildings but it damaged already weak institutions, and exacerbated the acute challenges facing women and children stemming from decades of political insecurity and recurrent natural disasters in that country. The earthquake orphaned thousands of children and separated thousands more from their parents.
Prior to the earthquake, 42 percent of girls in urban areas aged 10–14 years lived without parents. The numbers have since increased, leaving girls as young as 10 years old to provide for their younger siblings. To eke out a living for their family, many mothers work from sun up to sun down.
With so much responsibility thrust upon them at such a young age, the girls are at risk of not finishing school and being caught in the cycle of poverty. Even worse, living in displacement camps and slums, girls are now especially vulnerable to violence. Furthermore, sexual education is not a mandatory part of the curriculum at the ministry of education. Some private schools, however, do provide sexual education as part of their curriculum, says Anne Marie, the director of Profamil’s youth program.
“When we are at Profamil, we talk about everything,” Lovely said, as the others in the group listened intently. “Now I know the difference and I can make good decisions. I don’t have to listen to my friends at school.”
The health program youth initiative has provided a home away from home for many of the children, giving them a sense of childhood innocence that is being taken away from them in a vicious cycle of violence and poverty. But it only takes place once a week.
A generational gap is widening between parents and their children and programs like Profamil are working to bridge that gap by having parents attend sessions as well as their children. Differences are aired out, though not necessarily settled. Carolina Maximillien said that she teaches her daughter Altoura that she is precious, and that she should carry herself as a young woman.
“You have to cross your legs when you’re around boys,” Carolina said, turning to Althoura. “Otherwise, a boy would think you’re loose and approach you for sex.”
Altoura said nothing.
David Louis-Jeune is 24 years old. He has a youthful appearance and exhuberance of the group that he leads. He starts his session with jokes laden with sexual innuendo. The atmosphere is lively. Everyone giggles and some flashes an impish grin. And shortly afterward, the freewheeling conversation was under way. The talk veered from the pressure of having sex early to the danger of contacting venereal diseases.
“I want to help build a better Haiti and I feel working with the youth is a good first step,” Louis-Jeune said. The junior is studying public administration. “We’ve made lots of progress, but we have to do more.”
But even as more progress is needed, Haiti seems to be going in the other directions, many of the young people interviewed said. For instance, the government does not censor explicit lyrics songs from playing on the radio. The hardcore lyrics are well understood by the teenagers in a Creole-speaking nation where English is adopted by the youth. Television shows features nudity and themes that are not fit for teenagers.
Melissa Coupaud founded the Haitian Girl Network two years ago, bringing together Profamil and several other non-profit organizations to deal with the myriad of problems girls were facing, including rape and domestic violence. The network developed a program, called Espas Pam or My Space. During that time, the girls interact with each other and develop some of the few friends in their lives. Too often parents tell their children to stay away from people and not trust anyone out of fear that they may be victimized by the same people they trust.
Coupaud knows the limits of her efforts. Still, she remains hopeful.
“We can’t save everyone unfortunately. But we do the best we can,” she said.
Garry Pierre-Pierre is the founder of Haitian Times. He is currently the executive director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.