On November 4, Knowledge SUCCESS & FP2020 hosted the first session in the second module of the Connecting Conversations series, Parents, Preachers, Partners, and Phones: Engaging Critical Influencers in Improving Young People’s Reproductive Health. The inaugural session focused on the role of parents as critical influencers in young people’s reproductive health. Missed this session? Read the summary below or access the recordings.
Featured speakers, Dr. Chris Obong’o, Behavioral Scientist at PATH; Rachel Marcus, Lead Technical Advisor for the ALIGN Platform and Co-Lead for Evidence Synthesis, GAGE at ODI; and Hajra Shabnam, Technical Coordinator at Save the Children began by discussing specific strategies they’ve found helpful for engaging parents with young people’s reproductive health.
Dr. Obong’o shared several insights from his work with parents and caregivers of pre-teens and teens in sub-Saharan Africa; chiefly, that success relies on improving parent-child relationships. The earlier parents can begin talking about reproductive health with their children, the better — for several reasons. It’s easier to have those conversations at a younger age, and often, when parents start these conversations early, they’re more effective because they’re building on a rapport that’s been established with their children at an early age.
Dr. Obong’o, Ms. Marcus, and Ms. Shabnam all emphasized the need for parents to feel supported while they themselves are learning about reproductive health and building skills that will assist them in speaking with their children about these topics. This support should not only come from program implementers, but also from among parents themselves. Often parents don’t know where to turn if they need support and feel uncomfortable discussing it with other parents, and this can be a barrier to them engaging in conversations with their children about reproductive health. Ms. Shabnam talked about parents groups developed by Save the Children’s programs in Nepal, which address this support need among parents. Ms. Marcus mentioned that these types of support groups and networks were shown in a review of evaluations of parent programs under the Gender & Adolescence Global Evidence (GAGE) study to greatly increase a program’s ability to support parents in communicating effectively with their children, because they built a community of parents that could turn to each other with challenges they faced.
Dr. Obong’o emphasized that often parents not only lack confidence talking about reproductive health topics with their children, but they also feel uncomfortable talking about these topics, and so these conversations often don’t happen. Therefore, he mentioned that skill-building activities should focus on increasing knowledge on reproductive health topics as well as other skills, such as communication. He also mentioned that increasing parental understanding of risk is important in helping parents understand why these conversations are so critical. Ms. Shabnam expanded upon these critical points and added that skills such as listening, building trust, and engaging in positive parenting practices (such as praising and expressing pride in their children) are also essential to foster conversations about reproductive health topics among parents and their children. Ms. Shabnam discussed how parents and other caregivers can become a child’s “safe space” — a place in which a child feels they can be themselves, free of bias and judgement — by listening to whatever the child wants to share with them in a supportive way. This safe space concept is essential to building trust and encouraging open dialogue.
Ms. Marcus also discussed important considerations for parents or caregivers of youth living with learning disabilities. She shared that several of the programs included in the review conducted under the GAGE study focused specifically on parents of children with learning disabilities and that, in many ways these parents were even more uncomfortable or unsure what to do about approaching reproductive health topics with their children. However, she also mentioned that despite these feelings of discomfort, conversations on reproductive health topics are still important since their children are also going to go through these changes just as every human being will eventually in their life. She emphasized the focus of programs on information for supporting parents to help their children to understand such topics as menstruation and relationships through skills courses, and combatting taboos about the rights of people living with disabilities to have a sexual life. She also highlighted that programs implemented support networks of parents of children living with disabilities. Having opportunities to share experiences and learnings in these support networks was especially important for parents of children living with disabilities.
During the discussion, speakers mentioned “other caregivers” as important sources of information and trusted adult figures in youth’s lives. In response to a participant question on multigenerational households, all of the speakers spoke about the importance of recognizing the role that other adults may have in young people’s lives. They encouraged reproductive health care programs that build the capacity of parents and foster communication between parents and young people to expand the activities to include other caregivers as well. Ms. Marcus mentioned that despite the value in including other caregivers, sometimes programs might limit activities to only including parents, or only one parent per adolescent, due to program space and resource concerns.
Ms. Marcus found in the review conducted through the GAGE study that it was often the mother or mother figure who attended program sessions, and even if she learned new skills and ideas about parenting, she was not necessarily in a position to enact changes at the household level. Dr. Obong’o echoed these findings and shared that in his experiences working on parenting programs in several countries, the majority of parents that participate are mothers. He expressed the value in engaging fathers because consistent messaging helps children learn. To address this need, Dr. Obong’o shared that programs have developed strategies for mothers to engage their husbands through simple visual summaries of key lessons on reproductive health topics or communication skills learned during program sessions that can be brought home and shared. Ms. Shabnam mentioned that in Nepal, sometimes lack of knowledge and awareness of gender equality is a barrier to engaging with fathers. She emphasized the importance of not only engaging fathers in program session lessons, but also addressing structural aspects such as gender norms and gender equality.
The discussion wrapped up with a question on sustainability and not only whether program efforts have been sustainable, but also whether or not it is possible yet to see intergenerational change. Ms. Shabnam emphasized the need for supporting parents long-term through parent groups, which help ensure that parents continue to use the skills gained to engage with their children on reproductive health topics. In addition, Dr. Obong’o and Ms. Marcus acknowledged that understanding intergenerational change is a knowledge gap and there is a need for more documentation of this aspect to critically understand how program objectives of changing social norms have been effective or ineffective.
“Connecting Conversations” is a series of discussions on adolescent and youth reproductive health—hosted by FP2020 and Knowledge SUCCESS. Over the next year, we will be co-hosting these sessions every two weeks or so on a variety of topics. We’re using a more conversational style, encouraging open dialogue and allowing plenty of time for questions. We guarantee you will be coming back for more!
The series will be divided into five modules. Our second module, Parents, Preachers, Partners, Phones: Engaging Critical Influencers to Improve Young People’s Reproductive Health, began on November 4 and will consist of four sessions. Our next sessions will be held on November 18 (Preachers), December 2 (Partners), and December 16 (Phones) at 7am EST. We hope you’ll join us!
Our first module, which started on July 15 and ran through September 9, focused on a foundational understanding of adolescent development and health. Presenters—including experts from organizations such as the World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins University, and Georgetown University—offered a framework for understanding adolescent and youth reproductive health, and implementing stronger programs with and for young people. You can watch recordings (available in English and French) and read session summaries to catch up.