• Alex

Sex Education: The community way

#CommunitySolutions | If you haven’t been living under a rock (or: have a life without Netflix), you’ve probably heard about the show “Sex Education”. It’s a show that celebrates diversity and is actually quite informative about sex. The opening premises is, that a virgin teenager starts giving out sex and relationship advice to his schoolmates. I thought that sounded entertaining and highly unlikely – until my work colleague told me that’s how she got started doing trainings with children, adolescents, parents and civil servants on sexual and reproductive rights.

Her own sex education started at the age of 11 or 12, when she saw a blood stain between the legs of one of her older friends. In a panic, she started yelling at her that something was wrong, she was bleeding! Her friend took her aside and told her that it was normal, that she - and most women - bleed once a month, and that it’s her uterus’ way of rejoicing: “yay, I’m not pregnant!”. It was the first time somebody explained to her what menstruation was.

Two years later, at 14, she became a founding member of an organization called COCOSI – Asociacion Comité Contra El SIDA Cabañas (Committee against AIDS Association, Cabañas). At the time, they weren’t a legal organization, they were a group of volunteers. It was – and to some extent still is – a community response to HIV/AIDS in the region and was founded with the idea to provide information about HIV/AIDS, prevent it’s further spread and destigmatize people that live with HIV/AIDS.

Now, one cannot talk about HIV/AIDS prevention without talking about sexual relations and safe sex. Thus, part of the workshops they gave in schools, hospitals, health centres, community centres and so on were on safe sex practices.

Teenagers teaching adults

“Many of us were teens without any sexual experience. I’d had a boyfriend, but I call it a “sweaty-hands” relationship – where you’re so nervous you can hardly hold hands. But that didn’t stop us from taking a training of trainers course and teaching others! We’d have school in the morning and go and do a workshop in the afternoon or on weekends. We had funds for the bus and something to eat, but the work was voluntary.

One day, my dad was looking for something in the house and for some reason looked under my bed, where he came across my work tools: brochures, markers, flipcharts, and...a box full of condoms and a dildo.

Imagine how shocked he was to find that under the bed of his 14-year old daughter! Of course, his first reaction was to call for my mom.

I had told them what we were doing at COCOSI – and my mother knew of the details – but I guess he hadn’t imagined that I was demonstrating the use of condoms on plastic penises in front of groups of people.

I can’t tell the story now without cracking up, but at the time, the situation was a bit tense. My parents tried to talk me out of continuing with COCOSI. And yes, we were also stigmatized and discriminated against in the community: they thought all people at COCOSI had HIV/AIDS. But we continued doing the workshops – although initially not in our own community.

The perception of our work changed when the first member of my community returned from San Salvador with AIDS. They were already in advanced stages, could hardly walk, their body was riddled with infection, they had early stages of pneumonia.

It was the first time we went from mainly prevention and sensibilization work, to accompanying a person living with HIV/AIDS.

We were able to coordinate with a national HIV/AIDS institution and transport them to the hospital where they received treatments. After a while, the person was able to return to the community – walking! That was a huge moment for us. And it also had a strong impact on how the community saw the work COCOSI did, but also on how they perceived HIV/AIDS. That person still lives in the community today. I met them a while ago and they told me they could even stop the antiretroviral treatments for now.

I worked with COCOSI from 14 until age 20, when I went to San Salvador to study. It became more difficult to keep up my commitments, and slowly COCOSI and the way it functioned changed and became more project oriented.

But that time was one of the best times of my life!”

Where are they at today?

COCOSI is still going strong in Cabañas and accompanies people living with HIV, fights for the rights of sexual diversities and non-binary gender identities, offers trainings on sexual and reproductive rights, prevencion of gender-based violence (particularly inter-couple violence), establishing “life projects” with youth, and many topics more.

In addition, they do advocacy via Radio, information campaigns, etc. to create an environment of respect for human rights, without stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV/AIDS, Women Survivors/Victims of Gender Violence, and Sexual Diversity and Non-Binary Gender communities. It’s an “allied organization” of ADES and – lucky me – I will also get to do the capacity training in project formulation with them!

My work colleague still works on the topic of sexual and reproductive rights today. At ADES, she leads a project that aims at reducing child and teenage pregnancies in Guacotecti through trainings and sensibilisation work at schools and with public institutions.

Unfortunately, the department of Cabañas has the highest rate of child and teen pregnancies, with around 25% of pregnancies being carried out by women under the age of 19, and 1-2% by girls under the age of 14 in 2017. During the project period (2017 – 2019), the number of teenage and girl pregnancies has dropped in the project regions, but it’s too early to establish whether it has had a lasting impact. Currently, they're looking for funding to extend the project.

And in her free time? Well in her free time she’s part of different women’s organisations and collectives that mainly tackle gender-based violence. And on top of this, she’s an awesome woman who is always joking and smiling, she stitches and sells traditional Salvadoran shirts, and is always very proudly showing off pictures of her son.

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