Turning the Tide: Advocating for Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Cameroon
Education opens up a wealth of choices and informed decisions necessary to live a healthy life. We know that education and health enjoy positively correlated benefits. Education improves health, while health facilitates successful education. One way of ensuring adequate access to family planning services is through information—and education certainly provides opportunities for that.
Living in a community where lack of information is a major reason why people have limited access to sexual and reproductive health services, it is high time all stakeholders thought of the best approaches to fix this problem through well-planned education programmes. Such plans need to offer a comprehensive overview of the situation and expose recipients to the choices necessary to live a healthy lifestyle. I thought along these lines and considered questions like, “How can a woman in Benade use an IUD without learning how it works and understanding its pros and cons? How can a schoolgirl in Bertoua who decides to abstain stick to that choice if she is not aware of the importance of abstinence?”
Two of my teenage nieces suffered from pregnancy-related causes and consequently dropped out of school. Their experiences prompted me to dig deeper into the root causes of early pregnancy and propose possible solutions. In my research, I came across worrying statistics. For instance, 86.6% of Cameroonian young people do not have adequate access to sexual and reproductive health information and services—and this includes insufficient knowledge on contraceptive options—with over 76.6% of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) not using any contraceptive method (UNFPA, 2012). Consequences like an adolescent fertility rate of 138 per thousand women ages 15-19 (World Bank, 2011) are very apparent.
It was easy to identify a clear problem: inadequate access to sexual and reproductive health information services. My goal was to breach the huge information gap among adolescents. They need to have scientifically accurate information to make informed decisions. Yet, although sex and sexuality are integral parts of our lives, they are still widely looked upon with shame and are not even discussed in most households. Our passion to contribute to a healthy society led Deserve Cameroon to develop a comprehensive strategy to help tackle this problem.
One of Deserve Cameroon’s big successes is our project, “Comprehensive Sexuality Education: A Needful Approach to Sexuality Education in Cameroon Secondary Schools.” It aimed to increase Cameroonian youth’s sexual and reproductive health awareness by developing a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) syllabus between July and December 2016 and advocating for school counsellors to teach it in their schools. I developed a project and submitted it to Women Deliver. In June 2016, I won a $5,000USD seed grant thanks to the generosity of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. This enabled me to enhance the team of staff and volunteers at Deserve working to execute this project.
We needed help from the education system: Sex education, usually only cursorily taught, needs to be prioritised and given a comprehensive approach. It should be an examinable subject, not simply a passively guide module. To fully achieve this, we needed a commitment from the government to use its policymaking powers to make our programme effective across the country.
As with every advocacy effort, meeting top-level stakeholders is hardly effortless. Nonetheless, a clear goal and easily communicated objectives are critical. We chiefly worked with the Cameroon Ministry of Secondary Education. Garnering grassroots support, we were able to meet decision makers who clearly understood the necessity of this programme once we shared samples of our comprehensive sexuality education syllabus. Consequently, 25 government officials (the majority of the education sector) signed a commitment to have this syllabus taught in Cameroon secondary schools. Though not directly targeting adolescents, we were able to offer example lessons to 181 students selected from the North West and Centre Regions. During these sessions, 31 school counsellors learned to prepare lesson notes on comprehensive sexuality education.
Our use of the media was crucial during this advocacy campaign. We used social media, especially Facebook, to publish our advocacy results. We garnered support and were bolstered by the number of likes and comments—537 in total—supporting the course. Radio and TV were also important campaign tools to help government officials easily grasp the raison d’être of the project. They also whetted the appetite of the wider population of teachers, parents, and youth for comprehensive sexuality education. In July 2016, during one media appearance on which I was guest, a listener sent in a poignant message:
“Hello Madam, good morning to you and your guest. Honestly, your program is timely. I am in support of the notion that sex education should be included in the school program. Madam, believe me; the rate of pregnancy among school girls is alarming. I invigilated the GCE (General Certificate of Education) June 2016 in one of the accommodation centers in the country and I noticed that about 100 girls of the Form 5 class of that center were proudly pregnant.”
Stories like this add to our determination. We are always ready to turn the tide and make things happen for the benefit of Cameroon’s 32% population—those between 10 and 24 years (Population Reference Bureau, 2013). While we rejoice at the results of our advocacy strides, we continue building on them to carry on strategically and sustainably. We hope to reach every young man and woman with adequate information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including family planning.