Yes We Can: Inspiring Change Agents and Promoting Pre-Teen Health in Madagascar

The Problem

Madagascar is an island nation off the coast of Southern Africa, famous for its biodiversity, but also characterized by high rates of poverty and poor health. Youth unemployment has steadily increased since a political crisis in 2008; teenage pregnancy is high; and rates of sexually transmitted infections are increasing. While these statistics are appalling, previous projects have found that youth are committed and interested in improving their health but access to reliable information and a sense of empowerment are severely lacking. During the 2008 political crisis, the theme of “Yes We Can” – from Obama’s campaign – resonated in Malagasy youth. They were inspired by the emphasis on positive change but lacked the skills and opportunities to take action. This project will provide these skills while teaching health messages – the lack of which can hinder youths’ greater aspirations.

Plan of Action

For this proposed project, I will return to Fianarantsoa, Madagascar (where I lived for eleven years) this summer to help launch a pre-teen health and leadership project that is currently in its start up phase. This project will recruit eight young Malagasies who have experience working as peer educators. These youth will be assigned to four public middle schools in the city where they will implement, over the course of a year, fun and creative after-school activities for middle school students that integrate basic puberty, sexual health, girl’s empowerment, and leadership messages. Mid-year, each middle school will receive a $500 grant. With this grant, the middle school students and their mentors will apply their leadership skills to design and implement a civic engagement or school improvement project. There are currently no such after school programs in Malagasy middle schools; this program will fill this void while building leadership capacity and health awareness.

Project Updates

The project has been a tremendous success. In June, I went to Fianarantsoa, Madagascar for two months to work with the Projet Jeune Leader. Along with my sister and our Malagasy counterpart, we hired eight Young Leaders (18-25 year olds who will work in four middle schools in Fianarantsoa for a full year). A week after they were hired, I began the leadership trainings. Over the next two months, these young adults participated in over 90 hours of training. The American resources I had were translated into French, and then culturally adapted them for Malagasy youth: an “elevator speech” became a “speech in the time it takes to run to the latrine.” To my trainees’ surprise, I avoided lecturing and instead used participatory activities such as role plays and learning games. They loved this new style of teaching and are excited to try it out in the middle schools.
After my departure, my sister led extensive health trainings, focused on reproductive and teen health. The middle schools started at the beginning of October. The Young Leaders have been placed (in pairs) in a total of four middle schools. Each has created a “Coin Jeune” (Youth corner) in the schools where students can safely get advice, read, play games, and receive trainings. All have been integrated into the school day schedule so they are able to lead longer activities with the middle schoolers during class hours, all focused on health and leadership. In all, they will reach about 2700 middle schoolers over the year. So far, the students in the schools love the Young Leaders and energetically participate in the activities and lessons. I can’t wait to get a report at the end of the school year – I’m sure more incredible stories are still to come!

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