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Sexuality education without fear or shame for young people in Albania

20 November 2017
Youth peer educator Marjo Rabiaj
Marjo Rabiaj, 17, is a peer educator in Ballsh, Albania. Photo: UNFPA Albania

BALLSH, Albania – It’s not always easy talking to young people about sexual and reproductive health in the classroom.

“Whenever a question about our bodies was raised in biology class, there was laughter and whispering; some students turned red and others giggled,” says Marjo Rabiaj, 17, of Ballsh, a small town in southern Albania. “So sometimes the lesson was not taught at all, because the teacher said we were too immature to discuss such topics. I was so curious and eager to learn but since these subjects were called ‘shameful,’ I couldn’t discuss them with anybody.”

When Rabiaj and his girlfriend first had sexual intercourse, they did not use any method of contraception and they found themselves troubled by the experience.

“We had lots of fear, doubt and uncertainty about whether it was right or wrong, what could we expect afterwards, what others would think if they found out,” he says. “We decided to keep it a secret and didn’t talk about it anymore. I never even asked her how she felt about having sex.”

But one day, a teacher announced that Rabiaj’s school would be participating in a pilot programme to introduce comprehensive sexuality education in schools in Albania. The teacher had received special training on the subject, and had brought in two young people, trained peer educators from Tirana, to help. There was some laughing and blushing at first, Rabiaj recalls, “but soon we started to have several classes on topics that we never spoke about before. And all of our classmates started to feel more relaxed.”

The teacher and the peer educators who came to Rabiaj’s school are among hundreds who have been trained as part of a partnership between UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and the Albanian Ministry of Education and Sports. UNFPA has been working with the ministry and other partners in Albania for nearly a decade to institutionalize age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education as part of the curriculum for 10- to 18-year-olds in Albanian schools. A thorough curriculum reform, including a monitoring system to ensure the quality of teaching and materials, is underway with a target date of 2020 for full implementation.

“Sexuality education is a very important part of the health and life-skills education of young people,” says Zamira Gjini, director of the Pre-university Education Department at the Ministry of Education and Sports. “It is the duty of the school to ensure this education, and to raise awareness among parents, social-services agencies and local government about this and related topics, including keeping girls in school and avoiding child marriage.”

“Every young person has the right to live a healthy life and build a safe future, and sexuality education helps us do that.” –Marjo Rabiaj, 17, a peer educator in Ballsh, Albania

Following European standards for sexuality education

The process of European Union integration currently underway in Albania – a potential candidate country since 2000 and an official candidate for accession since 2014 – has been an advantage when it comes to bolstering support for comprehensive sexuality education in schools, according to Manuela Bello of UNFPA.

“Given the national efforts to join the EU, the Albanian educational system is very much developing along the same lines as European systems, following their standards and accepting their expertise in designing and developing comprehensive sexuality education programmes,” says Bello, who is Assistant Representative for UNFPA Albania. “And Albanian young people are more frequently travelling and living in European countries and beyond, so they have the opportunity to see what their peers learn, know and do that is beneficial to them.”

Among countries in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region, Albania is a leader when it comes to comprehensive sexuality education, having made significant progress in some key areas. Regulations supportive of comprehensive sexuality education have been adopted, large numbers of teachers trained in the subject, and teachers, young people and heath professionals involved in the planning and implementation process, according to a forthcoming report on the topic by Germany’s Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN). “Albania has made remarkable progress in developing and implementing comprehensive sexuality education, mainly thanks to the efforts of the Ministry of Education, the related Institute of Educational Development, and the financial and technical support of UNFPA Albania,” the report says.

 

Marjo Rabiaj (right) and other peer educators participate in a session about adolescent sexual and reproductive health from a human-rights perspective. Photo: UNFPA Albania

Public opposition from religious leaders to comprehensive sexuality education, an issue encountered in other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has not been a serious problem in Albania, according to Bello. But the concept sometimes faces resistance from teachers, parents and even young people themselves in remote villages where such ideas are new and little-understood.

“We’re overcoming this challenge by raising awareness at the community level in partnership with youth groups and other civil-society organizations,” Bello says.

Breaking down taboos with each generation

High-school teacher Nevjana Muça of Tirana says it is getting easier to discuss sexuality education in schools. “In the past, I have asked students to discuss certain topics, and have had them reply that their fathers don’t allow them to talk about that. I don’t encounter those kinds of difficulties so much now, though taboos unfortunately still persist,” says Muça. “We emphasize to all parents, teachers and students that the more informed young people are when they start sexual relationships, the better and healthier these relationships will be, and the more responsible, mature and prepared these young people will be in life.”

Oriana Osmani, a mother from Tirana, says she wanted her now 18-year-old daughter “to know as much as possible about sexuality education.” Even though it was awkward when her daughter was younger, she chose not to turn off the TV when a sexual scene came on in a movie, and instead tried to talk openly about what was being shown on screen. “I didn’t have any experience like that with my own mother, so it was difficult for me,” Osmani says. “I believe it will be easier for my daughter to talk to her children about sex when she becomes a parent.”

The sexual and reproductive health lessons introduced at Marjo Rabiaj’s school in Ballsh inspired him to get trained as a peer educator himself. He volunteers for a youth organization that promotes youth issues, including healthy lifestyles, sexuality education and youth participation. “I love spreading the word among my peers that every young person has the right to live a healthy life and build a safe future, and that sexuality education helps us do that,” Rabiaj says.

The frank discussions in school also helped Rabiaj and his girlfriend talk more openly about sex and their relationship, he says. “We had so many questions, which were now being answered,” he says. “We feel more at ease now, we talk openly, and  I think we have a healthy sexual life now and are protecting each other and helping each other stay healthy.”