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Webinar Reading Time: 6 minutes

Very Young Adolescents: Leveraging a Key Life Stage to Improve SRH

Recap of Connecting Conversations Theme 4, Session 2

On July 8th, 2021, Knowledge SUCCESS and FP2030 hosted the second session in the fourth module of the Connecting Conversations series: Celebrating the Diversity of Young People, Finding New Opportunities to Address Challenges, Building New Partnerships. This particular session focused on exploring how the experiences of young adolescents shape knowledge and behaviors as they age, and how to leverage the critical life stage of early adolescence to improve sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and continue healthy decision-making throughout life.

Missed this session? Read the summary below or access the recordings (in English and French).

Featured speakers:

  • Dr. Kristin Mmari, Director of Qualitative and Implementation Research for the Global Early Adolescent Study and Co-Chair of the Adolescent Health Focal Area of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins University (moderator for the discussion);
  • Lillibet Namakula, Program Manager at Public Health Ambassadors Uganda;
  • Serkadis Admasu, Program Manager at CARE Ethiopia; and
  • Tisungane Sitima, Sexual and Reproductive Health Programs Officer at Environmental Concerned Youth Association.

When thinking about very young adolescents, who are we talking about and why is this life stage so critical?

Watch now: 11:50

Lillibet Namakula started the conversation and defined adolescents as young people between the ages of 10 and 19. This is a critical age because individuals are going through a number of physical, emotional, psychological, and behavioral changes—including the social pressure of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. She further defined “very young adolescents” as those who are 10–14, an age group that is often left out in many SRH programs and resources created for adolescents.

Serkadis Admasu added to Ms. Namakula’s point, stressing that individuals in the 10–14 age group are going through both social and biological transitions and changes. However, the surrounding community often continues to treat them like young children. Raising awareness of the need for interventions is an opportunity to build programs and affect the attitudes, behaviors, and norms surrounding this age group.

Tisungane Sitima further spoke about the challenges faced by this age group. Very young adolescents experience many SRH challenges; while they are transitioning from childhood to adulthood, they are changing physically, psychologically, and socially. Physical and psychological development strongly influences social well-being. Some individuals in this age group are starting to explore their sexuality without the necessary knowledge of what they are doing and the potential outcomes. Unfortunately, many SRH policies are targeted toward those age 16 and older and do not focus on individuals who are 10–14 years old.

What does research say about the importance of SRH programming for the 10–14-year-old age group?

Watch now: 20:20

Ms. Admasu discussed research about girl-focused interventions. The 10–14-year-old age group is a window of opportunity to intervene because most individuals are not yet sexually active. It is important to consider cultural, social, and gender-related differences while designing SRH programs for these individuals. In many countries, patriarchal norms limit access to SRH information. Research has shown that girl-focused programs are effective for improving girls’ education and access to menstrual hygiene products, and creating safe spaces to promote gender equality and help girls reach their goals. This doesn’t mean boys should be neglected—their specific needs should be addressed as well—but girl-centered programs can enable boys to better understand and support girls.

Ms. Namakula spoke about the importance of supporting both girls and boys. Anything that happens to girls also has an effect on boys, so it is important for boys to be educated on girl-focused topics. Regardless of an individual’s gender, all very young adolescents have a variety of needs and worries. Offering them necessary information, life skills, quality counseling, and health services is crucial. Girls are often more vulnerable. For instance, in some communities, once a girl gets her period, she is considered an adult and ready to get married and have children. However, some girls start their period as early as age 8.

Ms. Sitima spoke about the exploration phase that many young people experience. Many parents believe that their adolescents are not engaging in sexual activities, while they actually may be. Adolescents have a desire to experience the world of SRH, so it is important to educate them about sexual and reproductive health from early on so they are aware of important issues like HIV.

Given that boys and girls are often being separated in early adolescence, what are some of the ways that programs can effectively support the participation of their young people in their design?

Watch now: 33:02

Ms. Sitima highlighted the importance of increasing access to SRH services and education. It is critical for adolescent-responsive SRH services to be provided at clinics, schools, and other locations where adolescents can interact with one another. Programs should be designed such that boys and girls are educated together. Young adolescents should know how to help themselves and others when experiencing challenges like sexual pressure and menstruation.

Ms. Namakula discussed youth engagement in program design and community education. The most vital element for supporting the participation of young people is for adolescents to be involved and engaged at every single stage of planning, implementation, monitoring, and follow-up on a program. When working with Population Services International (PSI) Uganda, Ms. Namakula and colleagues met with adolescents regularly to develop a youth SRH brand called Yo Space. Adolescents were asked questions such as, “What do you want? What do you not want? What challenges have you been experiencing? How can we do it better?”

Adolescents were asked questions such as, “What do you want? What do you not want? What challenges have you been experiencing? How can we do it better?”

Many young people are still dependent on parents, communities, and schools for SRH education. In schools, it is difficult for teachers to individually counsel students since they often teach more than 50 students at once and there is limited time for individualized attention. Since it can be difficult to bring this education directly to schools, communities have a big role to play. For example, community groups can train women to go out into the community and talk to parents and young people about SRH. Educating not only young people, but also the adults around them, can ensure that they can have a support network.

Ms. Admasu further emphasized the importance of involving youth when developing programs for them. Creating a focus group with young adolescents is important so their preferences are known and an understanding of what they really want to be supported on is gained. Flexibility is crucial in this type of adolescent programming—identifying the right time to meet with youth, who their influences are, and finding effective ways to test materials with them are important considerations.

How can we address the SRH needs of very young adolescents when this may be considered taboo?

Watch now: 47:15

Ms. Sitima answered this question in the context of Malawi. Social norms in Malawi do not support the discussion of SRH with children, as it is often believed that such conversations drive young people to engage in sexual activities. Since very young adolescents are still in primary school, it can therefore be difficult to address their SRH needs. It is also hard to discuss this issue in villages in Malawi—engaging traditional leaders could be very helpful in addressing this barrier and educating communities about SRH among adolescents.

Ms. Admasu added that it is necessary for adolescents to have access to comprehensive sexual health services, so it is important to work on changing norms in parallel with empowering adolescents and ensuring buy-in of the community with evidence about the effectiveness of SRH services.

How can we advocate for programs for very young adolescents?

Watch now: 51:42

Ms. Admasu suggested working with youth advocates to advocate for programs for very young adolescents. Donors and government leaders are more convinced when directly hearing from young people who have benefited from such programs. Having tangible evidence surrounding the purpose of a program and its success is important.

Ms. Namakula closed the conversation by discussing what she has learned about this topic through her work. Knowledge is power, but one cannot go to a community and expect to be heard when they do not have a connection to it. Picking a champion or point of influence that the community trusts to deliver the information to them is important, as the information will then likely get passed to adolescents and parents. In addition, bringing SRH education through entertaining artistic means, such as skits, poetry, songs, and dances can be very helpful. People can watch the scenes and discuss what they learned from them afterwards.

“Knowledge is power, but one cannot go to a community and expect to be heard when they do not have a connection to it.”

About “Connecting Conversations”

Connecting Conversations” is a series tailored specifically for youth leaders and young people, hosted by FP2030 and Knowledge SUCCESS. Featuring 5 themes, with 4–5 conversations per theme, this series presents a comprehensive look at Adolescent and Youth Reproductive Health (AYRH) topics including Adolescent and Youth Development; Measurement and Evaluation of AYRH Programs; Meaningful Youth Engagement; Advancing Integrated Care for Youth; and the 4 Ps of influential players in AYRH. If you’ve attended any of the sessions, then you know these are not your typical webinars. These interactive conversations feature key speakers and encourage open dialogue. Participants are encouraged to submit questions before and during the conversations.

Our fourth theme, Celebrating the Diversity of Young People, Finding New Opportunities to Address Challenges, Building New Partnerships, began on June 24, 2021, and will consist of four sessions. The remaining session will be held on August 5 (Young people from sexual and gender minorities: Expanding Perspectives). We hope you’ll join us!

Want to Get Caught Up on the Previous Conversation Series?

Our first series, which ran from July 15 through September 9, 2020, focused on a foundational understanding of adolescent development and health. Our second series, which ran from November 4 through December 18, 2020, focused on critical influencers to improve young people’s reproductive health. Our third series ran from March 4 to April 29, and focused on an adolescent responsive approach to SRH services. You can watch recordings (available in English and French) and read conversation summaries to catch up.

Shruti Sathish

Global Partnerships Intern, FP2030

Shruti Sathish is a rising junior at the University of Richmond studying Biochemistry. She is passionate about adolescent health and elevating the voices of young people. She is FP2030’s Global Partnerships Intern for the summer of 2021, assisting the Global Initiatives team in their work with Youth Focal Points and other tasks for the 2030 transition.