How training as a youth leader helped change my life and my school

2015 was the first year of our 3 year project on sexual and reproductive health and rights funded by the Big Lottery Fund and The Evan Cornish Foundation and run by our partner Fundación Si Mujer.

The project has trained youth leaders, who assist with the design and implementation of activities, and also share what they have learnt with their peers. Here is a report from one of those leaders, Diego Rico Rivillas[1] about how this training has impacted his life outside the project.

To read Diego’s report in Spanish, click here: Informe Diego

“In 2015 my school planned to develop a project on sex education. Since I have been learning so much about this with Si Mujer I spoke to the teacher who was in charge of this and we worked on it together until the middle of the year when he left. I then found out the school psychologist had been put in charge of the course and went to speak to her to update her on everything we’d been doing so far and to let her know what we had planned for the rest of the year. As we talked I realised that she planned to teach the course from a religious perspective and that rights such as the right to a legal termination and the use of contraceptives would be ignored. She also told me that I could no longer be part of the project.

On the suggestion of my teacher, I submitted a complaint form so that I could put forward my arguments on the matter. I explained that I thought the project should be taught based on scientific facts, openly and honestly, without prejudices and in a secular way as per Colombian law. I was told that my recommendations would be taken into account.

A couple of months passed and my school simply didn’t hold any more sessions on sex education.  Around this time, we found out that some of the girls in the school were pregnant. I talked to the school Directors and tried to persuade them to let me carry out the project if no-one else would. I tried to argue the importance of sex education to prevent even more teen pregnancies like the ones we were seeing, but still nothing happened.

In October I filled in another complaint form, in which I reminded my school of the importance of talking about sexual health and reproductive rights and of the legal framework that requires schools to teach children about these.

The school accepted that they had been wrong, and said that, since the school year was almost over, they would have talks about sex education in the upcoming ‘cultural week’ that they had planned, and then next year they would do something properly about the topic. Don’t worry, I will still be there next year to make sure that they fulfil this promise!

In addition to this, I have been able to carry out some replicas of my training with other students in my school – for example at the end of October I held a session with about 60 young people from grades 7, 10 and 11, where I told them about the cases in which abortion is legal in Colombia, and about use of contraceptives.

I think an even bigger achievement this year was being able to make my school modify a rule of theirs that restricts appearance and clothes, including restricting hair length for boys and preventing boys from wearing earrings.

In Si Mujer we had learnt about the right that education be directed at the free development of our personality and how we could defend this right in our schools. I spoke to my classmates about this, and the other things I was learning at Si Mujer, so when one of the teachers told my classmate that the next time she saw him with his earrings in, he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the school, he knew that it wasn’t right and he told her that she couldn’t order him to take them out. She replied that she could as he had signed a document agreeing to behave according to the school rules.

I tried to talk to one of the teachers about this, but she wouldn’t listen to me and just accused me of interfering in things that had nothing to do with me. In the end she told me to submit a complaint form.

I wrote a letter explaining the right the school was violating, with some details about rulings of the Colombian Constitutional Court on how this rule had been applied to educational establishments. I argued that since the document we had to sign on joining the school violated this right, it was not valid. I also reminded them that piercings were an ancient part of our culture, way before the Spanish colonised us. I asked them very politely to change the rule in the same way that other schools had already done to comply with the Court’s rulings.

The school informed me that they would have some meetings to discuss this and in the meantime I prepared by reading up all the rulings of the Constitutional Court and finding out as much as I could about the matter. In one of the meetings they let me have an hour to explain my argument. I prepared a presentation using slides, pictures and videos, in which I referred to our constitution, the rulings of the Constitutional Court and agreements that Colombia had with institutions such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. When I finished everyone debated the right that I had explained and what the school should do about it. It took a while but we eventually agreed that the school manual should be amended so that boys are also allowed to wear earrings, although we agreed on restrictions for how large they could be. At the end of the meetings the students and the parents and teachers were all happy with the agreements we’d reached.

Given all the differences we had this year, at the end of October I was surprised to receive a letter from the School Directors thanking me for having contributed to the improvement of their institutional processes.

Today I feel really proud of what I achieved last year, but I am certain that everything I achieved was thanks to what I’ve learnt through Si Mujer’s training, with the support of Children Change Colombia and the Big Lottery Fund. Without these organisations none of this would have happened.”

[1] Diego has kindly given us permission to translate and publish his report and to use his real name.
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