AIDS and STIs, are words written in very large letters on the chalkboard in a grade 8 class at the Learning Unlimited High School. The ten girls in the class, divided into two groups, have chosen these words as their ‘team names’ with a lot of giggling. Nadia Fleming, Project Coordinator for the St. Maarten AIDS Foundation (SAF), is hosting a ‘Girl Power’ workshop and testing the students’ knowledge through a game.
“What are four fluids that can transmit HIV?” Nadia asks ‘Team AIDS’. They quietly deliberate together and answer “blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breastmilk.” – with more giggles. Their correct answer allows them to score points by throwing a ball into a basket. A fun way to learn about an otherwise uncomfortable topic!
In the classroom next door, volunteer Alexander Stewart is holding a similar workshop. This workshop is called ‘Real Talk’ and is geared toward male teenage students. The language heard there is rougher, as the male students try to ‘prove their manliness’ despite it being clear that the levels of knowledge differ widely.
“Some kids know nothing at all, and others know way too much for their age, though often misinformed,” shared Nadia and Alexander – one of the reasons why the 3-day workshops are much-needed. Girl Power and Real Talk are tailored specifically for teenage girls and boys enrolled in secondary schools on Sint Maarten. They are prevention programs that teach abstinence and safe sexual practices, but they also teach smart decision-making, problem-solving, assertiveness and refusing risky situations.
“The ultimate goal is to help adolescents become more knowledgeable, more confident, and equipped to have safer relationships and healthy lifestyles,” the duo explains.
Why are programs like Girl Power and Real Talk needed?
As much as we aim to encourage abstinence amongst teenagers, the reality is that they are having sex. Many are not getting the correct information at home, from their peers, or from the internet. This puts them at risk.
Currently, SAF provides several workshops for various age groups. We recently started providing ‘puberty’ workshops, focusing on the bodily changes that 6th graders in Primary Schools can expect. Then Girl Power and Real Talk are offered to age groups 12 to 14 in high schools. We also provide a ‘Booster’ for age groups 16 to 18.
What are the statistics of teenagers having sex?
We don’t have many statistics here. However, the lab has seen a significant increase in STI cases in the past years, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea among teenagers and young people. Last year, SAF confirmed five positive cases for HIV; usually, this is just one per year… and all of them were under 30 years old. These numbers include males and females who are hetero- and homosexual.
Based on our conversations with teenagers during our workshops, they often think pregnancy is the only thing they must worry about when having sex. Due to miseducation, they do not realise they are at risk for other dangers, such as STIs and STDs, amongst others.
What are the risks other than pregnancy and STIs and STDs?
During the workshops, we work on building self-esteem and saying no. Teenagers, especially those who lack confidence, can be put in a situation where they are pressured into having sex. Teens have approached us after the workshops and shared situations when they felt uncomfortable or that they regretted. We also discuss the dangers of sending nude photos or videos and getting information about sex from the right sources.
Sexual education must have evolved since smartphones and the internet!
Everything can be easily documented now, and too many teenagers do not think of the consequences of this. In Real Talk, the male students also often bring up porn. We try to make them understand that this is not real sex – it is ‘adult entertainment’ and staged. TikTok and Instagram, and uneducated ‘influencers’ that these kids look up to, often also spread misinformation about sex, healthy relationships, and realistic expectations.
Sexual education in schools (and at home) has always been important, but perhaps, now more than ever, as otherwise, they will just get the wrong information somewhere else.
How do you handle privacy and sensitive questions from students?
It’s mandatory for Girl Power to be facilitated by female volunteers. It is preferred for Real Talk to be facilitated by male volunteers. Teachers or parents are not allowed to sit in on the classes – as their presence affects the comfort levels of our teenage participants. Teachers and parents also tend to try to ‘control the room’ or answer questions on behalf of young people.
In our programs, we remain objective about the topics at hand. However, we want students to discuss topics freely and ask questions. Sometimes, we share stories or personal experiences when relevant so that students can learn lessons and apply them to their own experiences.
We safeguard their privacy unless it puts them in immediate danger. When students bring up a question related to subjective or personal advice, we encourage them to talk to a counsellor or trusted adult. If we notice a class that could benefit from more lessons on a specific topic, we suggest this to the teacher or school manager afterwards.
What are some surprising things young people do not know?
Some teens know absolutely nothing, and others know too much for their age – and everything in between. I think the most worrying thing is that many of them seem not to think of the consequences of their actions.
This ‘disregard for consequences’ can be because they do not learn about consequences at home – their parents do not teach them this through boundaries and discipline. We also wonder if kids nowadays live more in a fantasy world –they do not feel or experience consequences because so many of their experiences are behind a screen.
For example, we hear teens saying: “I want to become a sports star,” but they vape, drink, and don’t take their sport seriously. It’s the same with their sexual experiences – they do not understand the responsibilities or think of the consequences.
What would you like to see improved in sexual health education at Sint Maarten?
Several schools still don’t utilise our workshops, nor do all schools provide adequate sexual health classes. Some schools don’t want us to provide our workshops because they feel it ‘promotes sex’. Our workshops always present abstinence as the best choice. We don’t promote sex, but we want to ensure young people make smart choices when they do.
It’s the same with providing free condoms – this is often not available at schools, and we have also noticed that sometimes the condoms are expired. However, SAF and CPS offer free condoms.
We know teenagers are having sex and putting themselves at risk, so we feel sexual education should be standardised and required in schools. We also should not forget the parents! Many parents don’t talk to their children about sexual health or have the right information themselves. This is why we are planning to develop and offer courses targeting parents. Schools and other organisations that offer parenting classes should also ensure that the topic of sexual education is discussed with attending parents and caregivers.
Too many people feel conflicted about providing information about sex or condoms to teenagers. However, if they decide to have sex, wouldn’t you rather they do it safely and protected?
St. Maarten AIDS Foundation is located at the Sun Building on Welfare Rd. #55, Cole Bay. The office is on the 2nd floor and is accessible via the parking lot at the back. The office is open Mondays to Fridays from 9 am to 4 pm.
Telephone and WhatsApp: +1721 523 2626 or +1721 553 2626
Email: Coordinatorsxm[email protected] & [email protected]
St. Maarten AIDS Foundation provides free and anonymous HIV testing. A complete overview of testing on Sint Maarten can be found here: https://www.sxmaidsfoundation.org/about_us/contactus.php