Josiane Hudicourt-Barnes is an education advisor with a lot of experience in Haiti. She's currently in the US and it was a pleasure to gain her insights on sexual and reproductive health education in Haiti including the current state, needs and challenges of adolescents in particular.
She was kind to share her experience with me after I briefed her about the Open IDEO challenge and our research into it. She also found the topic very insightful and agreed that it was the need of the day. The excerpts from the 30 minute conversation with Josiane are as follows:
1) Tell me about your journey and what got you interested to work in this area?
A) I am originally from Haiti and worked in the US for a long time. I came to the United States in 1979 as a graduate student and started teaching in the public schools in the urban area. At the time, when I was teaching, I worked mostly with middle school students from Haiti. From 2009-2016, I was in and out of schools and also I worked for US government on their education programs.
2) So when you say education programs, were you focusing on a specific area?
A) Yes, the specific area is reading. But at the time, I did come across the issue of sex-education because there had been a collaboration between the education field and health field to offer a manual on health through the US government. I was not part of the development but I had to respond to some questions about the manuals in 2012 and why they were not being used.
3) So the manuals didn’t go into circulation?
A) No they are not in circulation because they were outright rejected by the Ministry of Education. They were addressed to students from 6th to 9th grade and contained a section on sexual education. It depicted graphics and scientific drawings that showed genitals which is typical of a sex-ed class but the Ministry could not accept that such designs should be shown in the classroom. We did end up sharing some copies with certain programs that the US government sponsors – for example, there are special programs sponsored for children whose family members are affected by AIDS and programs for children in jail.
4) How is the life of an adolescent in Haiti?
A) One of the most striking aspects that you will find in Haiti is that there is a very high percentage of sexual violence on children. Personally, I feel that instead of following the traditional way of sexual education where a pre-teen child has a course about the body changes, I feel that there needs to be a more general approach about respect for each other’s bodies and how I own my body and I am allowed to say what anyone can do with it. There is also a lack of consciousness. Even though officially, violence against children or corporal punishment is not supposed to happen, it really is not an issue that is sufficiently discussed. I find that it could be a school teacher or principal who actually has the whip in their hand when they talk to children and the threat is there.
5) How would you describe the Haitian culture when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and awareness? How do people respond and react to it?
A) Some of it is directed by religion and some of it is directed by economics. I would say that in the urban areas, even though the general belief is that the youth is free to behave as they wish; it is also true that women are more aware of their reproductive rights and they also tend to have fewer children. In the past, the Catholic Church openly disapproved of birth-control and it had a lot more power but now the power is diminishing. Also, in an agricultural society, the children are considered part of your wealth. As we are becoming a more urban country, that idea of having more children is not as prevalent because everyone feels like in order to provide, they should probably have fewer children. Another aspect that I feel is not changing fast enough is the right of women to stop men from speaking to them in a way that is disrespectful or to touch them inappropriately.
6) Are STDs and teen pregnancies prevalent in Haiti?
A) I do think teen pregnancies are prevalent. It is related to education as very often the one who gets pregnant is either the very poor who hardly goes to school or the 16 year old who is still in elementary school and not progressing. I feel the more education you provide; the less you will encounter teen pregnancy.
7) Have there been any successful programs and strategies in Haiti to combat any of the issues related to sexual health and education?
A) I would say that there are programs but I am not close to any of them. I don’t think that lot of this information is transmitted through schools but more in youth groups that are independent of schools. There have been organizations like FOSREF focused on the youth.
[Through Haiti, FOSREF has established various centers/projects offering a wide range of interventions and services in the areas of Sexual Health/Reproductive Health, Family Planning, Diagnostic Services and Sexually Transmitted Infections HIV prevention interventions, HIV counseling, care and treatment.]
8) What are the main problems you see in the field of sexual and reproductive health and education in particular?
A) One of the issues that I think exists is that television in Haiti is becoming more and more popular but there is no restriction on sexually explicit scenes and much less regulation on what should be shown. Advertisements on TV are very explicitly sexualized that don’t exactly need to be. I have seen comic strips addressed to youth that have sexually explicit scenes. My impression is that the young people learn more information from these form of media than they receive from a formal teaching by either family or an organization.
Personally, I believe that changing the way people perceive their own bodies is important. Every child should feel that he or she has a right to not to be hit or touched sexually by anyone unless they accept it. I don’t believe this is something that is taught to the children at all.
9) What is the best way to eradicate sexual abuse and create more awareness? What kind of solution would work best in Haiti?
A) There are many different ways to reach the population. I believe the young people are very connected in the sense that they are on Facebook. Radios are still very popular because that is in a way almost free music. One of the popular ways in trying to get a message across is to have a so called famous star like a singer or performer who could possibly take on the issue and share. But usually there is not one means of connecting with everyone and I believe that there should different ways for different age groups of people.
10) Between the adolescents and youth who do you think are the most in need right now?
A) I think both groups are very vulnerable but I would say that the younger group are bit more protected as they might still be in school. But the 19 year olds and above are more vulnerable because there is not enough work and not enough higher education provided. Many of them are looking for paths in their lives and need guidance in all ways, in all different ways. So I feel that yeah maybe the older ones are more in need as they are not supported by government entities.
11) Is there anything else that you like to add?
Religion is always a factor and in the past many years we have seen the tendency of the most conservative group to speak up more and to be more punitive towards the youth in issues of sexuality. I feel that is very important concern and they are particularly outspoken against homosexuals but I think they are not outspoken enough against adults who abuse children. The wave of conservatism has really been growing.
Through the insights shared by Josiane, I was able to get a better idea about the sexual health education and services in Haiti. There is a high percentage of sexual violence directed at the young children. People who are in rural areas or not educated enough, have a lack of consciousness towards their rights and do not have respect to others bodies. Factors like religion, economics and education play a major role in how sexual health is perceived. Though there are a few organizations working to combat sexual issues in the area, there is a definite need for more awareness to be created through the right form of media and communication.