Engaging Parents — Creating an Enabling Environment to Advance Young People’s SRHR
As a mom and a perpetual advocate for youth, it’s no surprise that research has shown young people can take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive health, given the right tools and information. At the same time, we must recognize that socioeconomic, cultural, and educational disparities can make it difficult for many young people to take that responsibility, even if provided information and resources. How can young people champion and adopt healthy behaviors, such as seeking out information about puberty, sexuality, their bodies, and relationships, or accessing contraception, pregnancy or STI testing, if the world around them discourages them from doing so?
Parents or guardians often constitute a key part of that world – and unfortunately in many cases discourage their children from learning about sex and sexuality. While it may not seem like young people want to hear from parents and adults about sexuality issues, research shows that they do. Further, studies have also shown that parental involvement and culturally competent programs that provide complete and accurate information can go a long way toward helping young people make healthy decisions including decisions around practicing safer sex. When young people don’t feel connected to home, family, and school, they may become involved in activities that put their health at risk, including not using contraception. But when parents affirm the value of their children, young people are more likely to develop positive, healthy attitudes about themselves. A review conducted by Wright and Fullerton found that interventions with higher levels of parental involvement and community awareness showed the greatest impact on improving the sexual health of their children.
Although most parents want their children to have some knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, they often struggle to broach the subject. This struggle is one shared by parents across all countries. Given the essential role parents play in shaping their children’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, Advocates for Youth has sought to alleviate the discomfort around these difficult conversations as part of programming in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States. These efforts to foster parent-child communication about sexuality have taken many forms, including through comprehensive sexuality education. As noted in the recently released International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education by UNESCO and other UN agencies, research reveals that comprehensive sexuality education is most impactful when school-based programs are complemented with community elements, including parental involvement.
One strategy for further engaging parents or guardians is through the inclusion of homework assignments linked comprehensive sexuality education lesson plans. For example, schools may use a lesson plan on healthy relationships that Advocates for Youth developed for East and Southern Africa or the Advocates’ 3rs curriculum being used in several schools across Guatemala and the the United States.
Other strategies include training parents on parent-child communication, recruiting parents to serve on village committees or advisory groups for sexuality education programs, conducting home visits to provide more one-on-one support to parents on how to better communicate with their children about sexuality, and providing parents with resources on adolescent sexuality. Such resources can take many forms depending on the local context and needs---some examples from Advocates for Youth include an online Parent’s Sex Ed Center, a month-long awareness-raising campaign, Let’s Talk Month, calendars distributed to parents or guardians that feature monthly topics to discuss and questions to ask children on certain days, like this one developed for Jamaica, fact sheets on adolescent development for parents or guardians of adolescents of different ages, tip sheets, and conversation starters provided specifically for parents as part of the AMAZE project’s short films for very young adolescents and the parents’ Facebook page.
Having candid conversations that provide accurate and non-judgmental information about sexuality does not necessarily come easy and can push the boundaries of what is culturally accepted, particularly as it pertains to adolescent girls and young women. Nevertheless, positive communication between parents and children greatly helps young people to establish their values and to make healthy decisions.
We know that engaging parents is key to creating an enabling environment for advancing young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. This month, as part of the Deliver for Good campaign’s focus on Respecting, Protecting, and Fulfilling Women’s Sexual Health and Rights, let’s not forget the critical role that engagement of parents and the community can play in fostering rather than restricting access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services for all young people.