SHE SOARS podcast: How do young people experience Sexual and Reproductive Health globally and in Canada?


Episode Transcript

Madeline (00:01): Hello and welcome to SHE SOARS. Her Voice. Her Rights.

Amal (00:05): We are CARE Canada’s Youth Champions, a group of young people across Canada who are passionate advocates for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR).

Lauren (00:13): We’re excited to discuss and raise awareness about young women’s rights and choices in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.

Amal (00:20): Together, we will explore how these global issues connect to our lives as Canadian youth and discover ways in which we can all take action.

Lauren (00:27): We will also talk about the SHE SOARS project, which improves access to health and education, which are areas we want to see change in.

Everyone (00:34): Join us!

Lauren (00:35): Okay, welcome back to episode two of the SHE SOARS, “Her Rights. Her Voice.” podcast. Thanks so much for joining us for not only one but two episodes of this podcast now. If you haven’t listened to the first podcast, it’s only 15 minutes. We definitely recommend listening to that first because it will provide some more context about who we are, what we covered last time and what we’re going to be covering going forward. So I’m Lauren and I’m joined today by Madeline and Amal.

Madeline (01:07): Hi.

Amal (01:08): Hi everyone.

Lauren (01:09): We’re part of the Youth Champion group with CARE Canada and we have three other members as well who you’ll be hearing from at a later date, who we’ve introduced in the last podcast as well. So the last podcast we talked about what we do as the Youth Champions, as well as talked more about the SHE SOARS project, which is working in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. We talked about what SRHR is, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. So that was kind of an intro to that, which we’ll be diving more into today. We also discussed how and why we’ve each become involved in this project and what we’re excited about going forward. Definitely go back and listen to that for some more context. I guess we’ll dive further into this episode and we’re going to start by digging in deeper into what the SHE SOARS project actually is. So Amal, I believe you are the expert on that topic for today. Do you want to take it away?

Amal (02:01): Thanks Lauren. Yeah, so I’m going to talk a little bit about what the SHE SOARS project actually is. So to start off, what even is that long acronym, SHE SOARS? It stands for Sexual and reproductive Health and Economic empowerment Supporting Out-of-school Adolescent girls’ Rights and Skills. It was started in July 2021 and it is extending all the way until January 2029. The project mainly is aiming to deliver inclusive, holistic, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, life skills and financial literacy programming for young women and girls who are not in school and boys between 10 to 19 years old. This project is mainly youth-led, with youth leaders in each of the countries involved – Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.

Madeline (02:44): Yeah, so like Amal mentioned, the project is working specifically in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia and also in really specific contexts in each of those countries. The main reason for why those countries and specific communities is because these represent areas where any local laws that have been put in place and any improvements that have been made to help systems to try to better address SRHR issues haven’t really been able to reach young people, and in particular young women and girls. As a result, in these areas in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, there is really limited access to good comprehensive information about SRHR as well as really limited access to SRHR services. For example, one thing you can see if you look at the baseline findings for the SHE SOARS project, which are available on the project website (if you want to look into them in a little more detail, which personally I would recommend as I find them really interesting) is that the percentage of girls ages 15 to 19 who are able to make their own SRHR choices, which is quite a broad concept – it involves having access to all the information and services that you need to make your own SRHR choices as well as bodily autonomy and a whole host of other things that we can get into a little bit more when we talk more about SRHR – is only 48 per cent in Zambia, 43 per cent in Kenya, and only 28 per cent in Uganda. So there is a really large proportion of young women and girls who don’t really have access to what they need to be able to really take action and take control of their own Sexual and Reproductive Health. So ultimately that’s why these specific countries because these young women and girls are left at risk as they deal with difficult and often contradicting social norms, gender roles, and a whole host of different expectations that are being applied to their sexuality. So maybe Lauren, you could talk more about SRHR a little bit deeper, like what are the different components that it entails and what might having better access to SRHR look like?

Lauren (05:25): Yeah, absolutely. So this was actually kind of a new term for me going into my involvement with the Youth Champions. I had never heard of SRHR before and I actually hadn’t been involved in many global health projects or anything like that. So yeah, this was all quite a new space for me to be exploring. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned in that. I’m by no means an expert or anything but I’ll share what I’ve found in the research and what we’ve talked about as part of the Youth Champions so far, and we’ll be diving further into this as well throughout the whole podcast so this is just a general overview. Some major human rights treaties identify that SRHR, which are Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, entail not only the absence of reproductive or sexual illness but also the full enjoyment and well-being of sexual health. So SRHR covers all of the different human rights related to sexuality and reproduction. Some general examples of what SRHR could look like would be: equal access to a sexual health clinic, maybe access to contraceptives, spreading education around Sexually Transmitted Infections and safe sex practices, advocating against gender-based violence and a lot more things. So specifically for the SHE SOARS project SRHR activities, some of the examples look like: increasing the use of Sexual and Reproductive Health services, especially for youth, such as information on Sexually Transmitted Infections and menstrual hygiene management, and just focusing on breaking down stigma for this, focusing on youth health access and improving the delivery of Sexual and Reproductive Health services that respond to the needs and desires of young people, particularly girls, and providing training and resources to youth-led and women’s rights organizations to advocate for SRHR policies, other legal frameworks and services that can be more available and useful to young people. As you can see, just to reiterate, the SRHR activities involved in this project are really geared towards young people and shifting the narrative around how young people can access these services. Going forward we’re going to unpack more about why SRHR and this project is important on the global scale and also in the Canadian context and how these issues can manifest both within Canada and around the world.

Amal (07:47): Thanks Lauren. So I’m going to talk a little bit about the importance of why Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights is necessary to consider on a global scale and we’re also going to talk a little bit about our own experiences in the Canadian context and why it is so important to us. The issue of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights really impacts everyone across the globe, both in similar ways and also different ways as well. The more we recognize this connection and shared experiences among one another, the more effective we will be in diminishing the SRHR issues and spreading awareness across the globe. I’m going to talk a little bit about some statistics that really reflect the importance of addressing these issues globally. According to Global Affairs Canada, an estimated 257 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and modern methods of contraceptives, and nearly a quarter of all women are not able to say no to sex.

Amal (08:41): According to Global Affairs Canada, 45 per cent of abortions performed globally are unsafe and this really has led to the hospitalization of approximately 7 million women a year, causing five to 13 per cent of all maternal deaths. So improving SRHR for young women and girls really enables them to stay in school and advance their gender equality. Recent studies by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) have shown that one additional year of education in a girl’s life can really increase a woman’s earnings by up to 20 per cent. So those are a few statistics, but now I kind of want to ask you, Lauren and Madeline, about your experiences in the Canadian education system, reflections on Sexual and Reproductive education that you’ve received or what you’ve seen.

Lauren (09:25): Yeah, I can dive in and we can kind of just bounce off each other. I’m happy to share my experiences.

Madeline (09:31): Yeah, sounds good.

Lauren (09:32): My introduction into sexual education (sex ed) and everything like that was a very embarrassing conversation with my mother when I was in about grade four, where I was just like, stop talking. This is not happening. Yeah, so I kind of immediately had that stigma internalized about it. I didn’t know about it but I also kind of felt like it was just an embarrassing topic. Then I remember in elementary school, I only had seven girls in my class so we were all taken into a separate room and kept very separate from the boys to learn about periods and everything. It was almost like we like weren’t allowed to know what they learned and they weren’t allowed to know what we knew. It kind of went on like that until the latter half of my high school where it was kept very separate, genders were not really mixed or talked about in any other way other than the traditional female/male. Everyone was just kind of learning their specific group. It was quite “hush hush” I guess and just very conventional, like not talking about contraceptives or anything like that but talking about abstinence and all of these horrific Sexually Transmitted Infections but not anything like how to prevent them or ways to talk about consent or anything like that that might like be useful for people that are having sex when they’re young. So yeah, I think there was definitely a lot of room for improvement. They definitely did do some things right by kind of starting as young as they did but in my opinion there’s always room for improvement and changes in that sort of system. Did that reflect your guys’ experience? What are your thoughts?

Madeline (11:07): I mean I think it’s really interesting that you brought up the way that it was separated based on gender because I could be misremembering but that’s not something that I remember happening for my health class when I was in elementary school, not sex ed because it was really just focused on puberty and things like that. That’s not something I remember happening at that point and in fact, I remember actually my teacher in grades five and six when we were having those discussions was a woman and she also brought in one of the other teachers, who was a man who taught in the classroom next to us, to sort of get the different perspectives I guess. So we could hear about the changes that male bodies typically go through from someone who had experienced it.

Lauren (11:55): Yeah, that would be helpful to know I guess, both sides.

Madeline (11:58): So I think that was really helpful at that point but then once I got to middle school and we did start having more actual sex ed. It was part of our gym class, like we would have health sex ed with our gym teacher and our gym classes were separated based on gender. So it wasn’t even like a deliberate separation, but there was that separation that, now that you say it, is not something that had occurred to me before but it did sort of make it feel like something that was secret knowledge or something almost that wasn’t meant to be shared with guys. It was like we weren’t supposed to talk with the opposite sex about what we were learning and it sort of subconsciously just gave the whole thing a secretive sort of feel.

Amal (12:50): Yeah. I was just going to mention, I would say my experience was pretty similar to both of yours. I definitely remember being in a separate classroom than the boys in my class and it was taught by a female teacher. They really only taught us about more of the reproductive sense and like the menstrual hygiene part, but nothing really about sexual health. I don’t think we really had any focus on it either in high school from what I remember but it’s been a while so I could be just not be remembering. But besides that, for me personally, the only really information that I got was from school or from the internet about Sexual and Reproductive Health because it’s not really something that is discussed in our culture. So there was a really big stigma about it. I don’t think I’ve had one conversation with my mom about sexual health or reproductive health. So really looking back there have been some gaps in the Canadian curriculum that need to be improved and I hope they have made changes but you know, I haven’t really reflected back or talked to anyone who’s in the curriculum right now.

Lauren (14:01): Yeah. Especially having read about the how SRHR is defined in different treaties, it’s about the full enjoyment and well-being of sexual health. I think that side of things is definitely kept out of the public school system. When you’re below 18, it was taught in kind of a very sort of negative connotation or something to be ashamed of; if you are doing it, you’re going to get this horrific disease or something like that. So it seemed kind of like this scary thing that was very discouraged, which I’m sure can last people into their adult life and kind of make you feel ashamed going forward. I think there’s a lot of de-stigmatization and things like that that we can all kind of agree upon.

Madeline (14:39): Yeah, I agree.

Amal (14:41): I’m just going to point out how similar our experiences are even though I believe we all grew up in different provinces. So just seeing how similar it is is really interesting to me.

Madeline (14:53): Yeah, for sure. I was going to say, I know in my experience it wasn’t as explicitly stigmatized, like there wasn’t a super strong focus on abstinence or this sort of like vilification of sex, but at the same time there wasn’t much discussion about pleasure, like the good aspects that can be associated with learning about sex. It was still very much focused on like Sexually Transmitted Infections and here’s what you can do to avoid getting pregnant because that would be like the absolute worst thing that could ever happen. Right? So even though they weren’t outright saying that you shouldn’t have sex, it was still sort of subliminally telling us like sex is bad, like this is something you should be afraid of and we’re not really going to give you all the tools you need to fully navigate this aspect of life. Like you mentioned Lauren, we never really talked, at least that I can remember, about consent or what consent looks like or why it’s important or any of that. I think that’s a really big part of learning about what Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights is, the importance of consent, and it wasn’t something that we ever really touched on at school.

Lauren (16:13): Yeah, and just reflecting back on those global statistics that were shared about just the massive numbers of women around the world that aren’t able to say no to sex and have all of these issues, it’s no wonder reflecting back on our own sexual education experiences.

Madeline (16:30): Yeah, and the other thing that I wanted to bring up for me too was how I mentioned from middle school on, it was tied to our gym class. It was just like a couple times a year we’d have like a health unit where for a week or two, instead of having regular gym class, we’d go in a portable and we would learn about whatever that unit was on. So most of the units weren’t even related to puberty or sex ed or anything like that. Most of them would be like the dangers of alcohol and drugs or something like that. Even still, that was the only form of sex ed we had and we only had to take gym in grade nine. So after grade nine it was sort of whether or not you kept getting sex ed was based on whether or not you decided to keep taking physical education (phys ed) courses.

Lauren (17:23): Wow, interesting.

Madeline (17:24): If you kept taking phys ed, there would be health units no matter what the phys ed course was, but if you stopped taking gym after grade nine when you didn’t have to anymore, you never got any more for the rest of high school. So that’s just one year and we did maybe four weeks out of the entire year focused on topics related to SRHR. So it was really, really minimal and that was one of the big failings I think. When we did have the classes, although they weren’t amazing, in my opinion, they weren’t terrible either, the way they approached the topics, but it was just so limited in the time that we had to talk about it.

Lauren (18:01): I would say my experience was similar. I think maybe grade 10 was the last time that I had like a formal sexual education class and it was pretty generic at the time. It is interesting, as we’ve said, how similar they have been across different education systems and different provinces.

Madeline (18:22): Yeah. I don’t know about the two of you, off the top of my head, but I went to school in Ontario so that was my experience just to give context for people listening.

Lauren (18:30): Yeah, I was in New Brunswick.

Amal (18:33): I was also in Ontario but I think I was in eastern Ontario. I don’t know about you Madeline if you were in the same area.

Madeline (18:39): Yeah, I grew up in Ottawa.

Amal (18:41): Oh okay. I was in Toronto so much further away.

Madeline (18:45): Yes. So different school boards still. It’s interesting even within the same province the differences.

Lauren (18:52): Yeah. Okay, well this was really interesting to talk about and share our different experiences and everything. I don’t know, I’ve never really had an opportunity to reflect back on that before so I’m looking forward to getting more into these topics and seeing what everyone’s experiences were.

Madeline (19:08): Yeah, and I think at some point we were even hoping to have an episode dedicated to talking a little bit more about sex ed. So now I’m excited to be able to get into that a little deeper and talk about different aspects of that.

Lauren (19:20): Yeah. I was thinking I kind of want to do some actual research and see what the curriculum in all the provinces are teaching now and see how much it’s changed in the last 10 or so years.

Madeline (19:30): Definitely. I think that would be really interesting but I think it’s probably good if we leave it there for now. We don’t want to steal too much content away from future episodes.

Lauren (19:41): Yeah.

Madeline (19:41): So I just want to say thanks everyone for listening and we will see you next time.

Amal (19:46): Thank you all.

All (19:47): Bye.

Amal (19:51): Thanks for listening to SHE SOARS. If you liked this episode, please share it on social media, connect with us in the comments or give us a like.

Lauren (19:58): Make sure to catch our next episode by subscribing to our channel and following us wherever you get your podcasts.

Madeline (20:04): Follow @carecanada on Instagram for updates on our show and the project.

Lauren (20:09): SHE SOARS stands for Sexual and reproductive Health and Economic empowerment supporting Out-of-school Adolescent girls’ Rights and Skills in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.

Madeline (20:20): The project is funded by Global Affairs Canada. Check out our global partner organizations:

Amal (20:25): Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Restless Development for even more project updates.

Lauren (20:34): Thanks again for listening. Until next time!