“What I like to see is a youth movement, who makes SRHR a daily issue”

July 31, 2017

Technical Advisor Jo Reinders has just retired. He is a sexologist and has more than 30 years’ experience in national and international intervention development and implementation, training and consultancy in the area of (school-based) sexual health promotion, comprehensive sexuality education, HIV/STI prevention for youth and sexual and gender diversity. A perfect time to ask him tips and tricks how to best support adolescents to become empowered young people.

An interview with Jo Reinders by Miriam Groenhof

What does empowering young people mean for you?

The best way for young people to make their own decisions is when they feel empowered by you. Power is within them instead of outside them. It doesn’t work if others tell young people for instance that they need to abstain. Young people can and need to make their own decisions as then you can expect they will stick to them. In order for young people to feel empowered they need to be aware of and able to apply their power.

How can we make young people aware of their power?

In two ways we can make young people aware of their power: increase their self-esteem and make them aware their rights.

  • Increase self-esteem can be done through different exercises. There are all kind of playful methods that can be done in schools and youth centers with them when the atmosphere is safe, like: ask them to write down their strongest capacities and discuss it with a trusted neighbor or group. But also in the kind of didactics and pedagogy a teacher or youth worker can increase self-esteem by continuously giving positive feedback. And facilitate in a way, that you not push them down with a strong discipline in the group, but create an atmosphere of safety and encourage them to participate and learn to build on their existing knowledge.
  • Being aware of rights is even more important and serious. A lot of young people do not know they have rights; the right to access information, education and health services, to participate and most important, to self-determination and be themselves. By making them aware, they often realize for the first time that they can make their own decisions.

Often adults approach young people as they do not have norms and values and no capacities.  Within a teacher training it is important they make that switch, which is not easy. Teachers and youth workers often think ‘When I give rights to young people, they abuse it’. Two things are very wrong with that attitude. First you do not give rights; youth have them! Second, rights are always related to respect; you can only claim your rights if you respect the rights of others. So, with that respect they cannot abuse their rights. But they can speak out and stand up for themselves.

Once they are aware, how do we learn young people to apply those rights?

You cannot apply rights without taking the context in consideration. You have to be aware of the often limiting social norm in the community. If you don’t deal with contextual factors, you will have a programme that sounds nice but cannot be effective. Therefore you need a multi-level approach and also include and work with the community like their leaders, the parents, health service providers, policy makers, et cetera.

I often do an exercise with statements on young people, like for instance: ‘Can I as a father look at the mobile phone of my son when I suspect he watches porn?’  Discussions are often very intense. I always ask: ‘Can your son look into YOUR phone?’ The group usually argues that he is a child, parents have rights etc. Then I turn it around and ask: ‘Does the son have right to privacy?’ Finally I state: ‘Imagine, the son discovers you looked into his phone. What did you gain?’ The main issue is the son feels mistrusted.

With mistrust you never get that open relation as you would like to have as a parent. But that respect for children’s rights is often seen as a Western idea, so you cannot impose this respect. You can only convince them of the added values like trust, support building in own capacities and self-reliance instead of control and prescribing and use your authority. As soon as  parents, teachers and health workers apply this, they will get lots of positive feedback. And indeed, after a short time teachers already come back to me and tell me how students opened up and come to them with many questions. That is often very new to them and also rewarding.

What is the role for young people within the AIDS response?

Of course it is not only about HIV but about sexuality in a broad sense. About more than 90% of all HIV infections are caused by sexual relationships. So I believe it is about breaking the taboo and open up society. Young people have the power to do so by using their own channels like social media and peer education. In fact what I like to see is a youth movement that makes SRHR a daily issue. I see it already happening. Reach a Hand Uganda, a youth led organisation, organizes for instance intergenerational dialogues, livestreamed on national television, on very controversial issues like comprehensive sexuality education and abortion.

In 2015 I did a training on LGBT in Pakistan, something that I could not have been able to imagine when I started working there in 2009. Nowadays young people are world citizens because of internet and communication worldwide. They get their information about any issue, so they have questions about their growing up; to their parents, teachers, youth workers, religious leaders et cetera, even when the culture is so closed. Young people can help the evolution of their culture; they can pick the best for their own culture, without ruining all the good parts their culture has. And of these good parts we in Western societies can also learn a lot!

When we want to effectively respond to the AIDS epidemic we need furthermore access to up to date, scientifically correct information for all and treatment and also prevention methods like PrEP. This is such a sensitive issue as it stands for enjoying unsafe sex, supported by medication. A lot of people have problems with that, also in Netherlands, even though it is very cost effective. Only users themselves, like key populations but also young people can show the need for and importance of PrEP. For acceptance of PrEP , they need to be involved in the discussions.