When Paulina, a headteacher at a school in Chimborazo – a rural, indigenous province in the Ecuadorian Andes – started showing her pupils how to use condoms, it caused quite a stir.
“When the wooden genitalia was brought in, it was like you’d put a gun on the table,” recalls Paulina. “The girls were shocked. They went bright red.”
This kind of reaction was to be expected as sex is an extremely taboo subject in Chimborazo.
Until 2017, schools in the province promoted abstinence in their sex education programs which often meant adolescents relied on incomplete or false information from peers and movies. This resulted in many girls becoming pregnant and getting married at an early age.
“I had two pupils aged 15 who got married,” she says. “Another couple got married at 16.”
According to UN Women, pregnancy among girls under 15 in Ecuador increased by 78% between 1990 and 2009, and that’s why Plan International is working with leaders like Paulina to help introduce comprehensive sex education that gives students a full range of information and skills needed to make informed decisions about their health and sexuality.
The hope is to reduce alarming numbers of teen pregnancy and sexual violence in the community.
Sexual violence – an elephant in the room
Sexual violence is a serious issue in Ecuador – one that is more widespread than people are willing to talk about. On average, more than 2000 girls under 14 give birth every year, all of them victims of sexual violence. Often it is family members who abuse youth.
In Chimborazo, rape isn’t considered rape unless a victim is over 18 years, and sexual violence often goes unreported which means many women and girls suffer in silence.
For Paulina and her colleagues, the most proactive way to prevent sexual violence is to ensure youth understand that they are supported by the wider community to speak up about abuse and speak out about the rights they have over their own bodies.
“We run a program called ‘Don’t touch me’ for children of all ages,” she says. “At a very young age, we use drama and literature to introduce them to their body parts and make it clear that they shouldn’t let people touch their bodies – not family members, not teachers, not strangers.”
These learnings aren’t just reserved for girls – boys, like 15-year-old Angel, are also participating and becoming aware of what constitutes sexual violence, why it’s wrong and how to respect the women and girls in their lives.
“Girls who go to the club – like Jocelyn, my sister – are taught all about their sexual rights. They know that no one should touch their private parts without their permission and they’re confident,” says Angel. “It’s so important for girls to know their rights.”
“The teachers also monitor students’ welfare very closely,” adds Paulina. “They know when kids are absent from class or when they’re going through a difficult time at home.”
Overcoming shyness to talk about sex
Through weekly workshops that involve discussion, drama, mime and dance, students are also learning to overcome the taboo of talking about sex.
In fact, some students have been known to engage so enthusiastically with the workshops that they dress up as condoms and birth control pills to put on performances that help educate and engage their peers about all things related to sex, birth control and pregnancy.
Involving parents has also played a key role in ensuring the whole community is on board with embracing sex education.
“It’s important to have these conversations with parents so they support us in what we’re teaching and help guide their children to not have babies so early,” says Paulina, adding that traditionally parents would encourage young couples to get married which would inevitably result in early pregnancies.
“At first, some of the mothers went red when we broached the subject. They said sex was something they didn’t talk about, they just did it.”
“Now, though, they’re more open about it. They talk to their children and find out when they’re having relations. Instead of pushing them to get married, they urge them to use contraception, and they tell us about any marriage plans, which gives us the chance to talk to the kids about whether it’s really the right decision for them.”
Clearly, the combined efforts of teachers, students and parents are paying off as there were just 6 teenage pregnancies in 2018 compared to the average of 40 in recent years.
“We try and be practical,” says Paulina. “We tell our young people: ‘If your going to have sex, protect yourselves, so you don’t have children early’ and most of them listen to that.”
“It starts with them realizing that the human body and sexuality are nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Paulina is one of 200 teachers in Ecuador who has received training and teaching aids from Plan International to help develop young people’s awareness of their sexual and reproductive health.