Getting Adolescents to Talk
Morshed Ali Khan
A group of 10 young girls between the ages of 13 and 19 sat on the earthen floor of a tin-shed room in the remote village of Kunda in Brahmanbaria district, some 120 kilometres northeast of the capital Dhaka. Today the topic of their discussion is how to maintain hygiene during menstruation. The girls frankly talk about the prevailing superstitions on the issue and then move on to discuss about how to keep fit through proper diet and good hygiene during this natural course of physical change at adolescent. Their team leader, Kaniz Fatima, a young university graduate working for Save the Children, USA sits in a corner and watches carefully as the girls stage a drama on the topic in local accent.
Shahana Akhtar, a HSC student describes how only a few months ago most young girls of the village were living in total darkness about reproductive health.
"I could not discuss the matter with anyone, during menstruation my mum would tell me to keep away from everything and everybody, she would insist on keeping the re-usable sanitary towels away from sight," Shahana says.
Runa Akhtar, who quit high school in class 9 said that thanks to open discussions they now know that the towels have to be thoroughly washed and dried under direct sunlight before use again.
The group also discusses about the necessity of proper nutrition during menstruation. Shakila Akhtar, a student of class 10 says that adolescent marriages are also disappearing from the village.
Not very far away in the same village, a group of young boys of the same age, sit together to discuss about topics related to puberty and sexually transmitted diseases. Zabedul Islam Bhuiya, a young participant, narrates how he was fleeced several hundred taka by a quack doctor after he went to see him for what he thought was a health problem. Each one of the group answers confidently about the topics as their young team leader, Foridul Islam Forid, asks questions related to sexual health.
Overcoming inhibitions about discussing reproductive health is a major step
Only a few years ago it would be unthinkable for the young men and women of this village to even discuss these topics with anyone other than a friend, who would be just as clueless about the problem.
But thanks to relentless hard work of some dedicated young men and women under the banner of 'Koishor' a Save the Children, USA, project, hundreds of adolescent boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 19 of this remote Nasirnagar upazila are now aware of the basics of sexual and reproductive health. The knowledge among the young people has already started to bear fruit. The participants in the programme are themselves disseminating health information to their friends in schools and relatives at home. The entire society seems to have accepted the fact that without awareness their lives would be at stake.
But it has been a tough road for the organisation. When in 2002 the Save the Children, USA tried to launch the Koishor programme to educate adolescents about reproductive and sexual health, the communities of the remote Nasirnagar upazila of Brahmanbaria district stood against it. Hard to reach till today for its location in the middle of vast flood plains (haors), the people of Nasirnagar had always remained deprived of development activities. Most people lived with deep-rooted superstitions and rejected any new ideas. Activities of the Koishor programme thus ground to a halt for one year.
Adolescent boys freely discuss sensitive issues like sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases
Dr Rasheduzzaman Shah, Programme Manager of Save the Children's School Health and Nutrition Programme says that, considering the trend of early marriage, the Koishor programme was launched to mainly prepare would-be mothers and fathers with knowledge for safe parenthood.
"Our first obstacle was to introduce the new idea to the community and convince the people about the benefits of the programme," says Rasheduzzaman.
After less than four years of hard work, Koishor now has 300 groups of adolescents, each consisting of 10 to 15 members. Aided by a field officer, each group meets at a designated place once a week for two hours. Once a group graduates in six months time, it is replaced by a new one.
Ashish Kumar Datta, the Programme Officer (Research) of Save the Children says that in the process the organisation has also trained 20 quack doctors of the area, who are now able to counsel adolescents properly. The organisation has also helped open a counseling centre at the state-run Upazila Health Complex.
"If a young person approaches one of these trained quack doctors, he or she will give the medically correct answers or direct the person to the better-equipped counseling centre at the health complex," Datta says.
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