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Tanzanian program bridges adult-youth communication gulf for better health

December 03, 2012

 Bi Umanzi Vuai had questions about her changing body during adolescence. But parents in her community on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar rarely discuss sexuality with their children, and the little information she got left her confused.

Now in her 50s and a teacher of religious classes, Bi Umanzi said, laughing: "My mother used to tell me I would get pregnant if I 'met' with men. This created a lot of fear in me when I was young, to the extent that I did not even respond when men greeted me. My mother should have told me that one can get pregnant by having sex, not by 'meeting' men."

Bi Umanzi clears up such misunderstandings and shares reproductive health information as a facilitator with the Daraja program. Daraja (a Swahili word meaning "bridge") brings youth ages 15-24 and their parents or trusted adults together to talk about HIV prevention, reproductive health and the challenges and changes of growing up. It is a program of the American Red Cross, the Tanzania Red Cross Society and FHI 360's UJANA youth HIV prevention project, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Intensive three-day workshops, implemented by national family planning organization UMATI, target adults on the first day and young people on the second day. The groups then merge on the third day. Adults and youth learn about preventing HIV, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. Through role playing activities and discussions, the youth also build self-esteem, while both groups practice expressing their feelings and concerns.

During these dialogues, participants practice communicating effectively across barriers of age and authority — a new skill for many Zanzibari parents, who are often concerned that discussing sexuality with their children will invite disrespect or be perceived as an endorsement of sexual activity. In adult-only sessions, facilitators emphasize how, on the contrary, effective dialogue can help youth avoid harm and delay sex. In separate sessions, youth discuss the physical, social and emotional changes of adolescence. They also learn that talking with grownups can help them navigate these changes.

Twenty-three-year-old youth facilitator Zuleikha Ali Khamis would have liked to talk openly with an adult about the changes she experienced during puberty. "As I grew up, nobody told me about [menstruation]; it was like the thing does not exist," she said. "Things have changed with the Daraja training. I personally teach my young sisters what they should expect in the process of their growth."

Since April 2011, 450 adult-youth pairs have attended the discussions on Zanzibar's main island, Unguja. UMATI Unguja coordinator Salim Maalim said local religious and other leaders are interested in extending Daraja to additional areas. Bi Umanzi believes her community is benefiting from more open discussion about pregnancy, homosexuality and substance abuse. She said: "A large number of youth as well as parents in this community are getting to accept that open parent-child dialogue lays a firm foundation for youth to lead a healthy life."