Safe and Supportive Environments
“For girls especially, the idea of safe and supportive environments is crucial, given the burdens and limitations placed on them by parents and social institutions that intensify as girls approach adulthood.”43
Fostering a Safe and Supportive Learning Environment
One of the most difficult aspects in implementing SRHR programmes is being explicit about sexuality and related topics in countries where such concepts are taboo. This means that the programme materials and facilitators need to openly and sensitively address issues such as masturbation, abortion, condom use, pleasure, abuse, sex before marriage and taboos. It has to be done in a positive, non-judgemental way. This requires a safe and confidential atmosphere, created by facilitators and coaches who do not impose their own norms on adolescent girls. They must simply provide adolescent girls with sufficient information and guidance to make their own well-informed decisions.
Providing correct information is not only ethical, but also essential for effectiveness. Correct and complete information should be provided, and myths and misconceptions related to sensitive topics such as condoms, masturbation and sexual diversity should be corrected. The information should be factual and not value based. Facts and figures should be given, indicating the sources of information. All information should be tailored to the target group, taking into account age, literacy level, ethnic background and gender.
In teaching potentially sensitive SRHR content, it is essential to foster a safe and supportive learning environment that is inclusive, challenging, caring, engaging, and interactive; one that enables participants to feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions, and participating in activities and discussions if they choose to do so. Establishing ground rules helps provide a safe and supportive environment and helps prevent uncomfortable or embarrassing situations for the facilitators, coaches or participants.
Ask participants to brainstorm a list of rules44 and values they think will make the sport programme more successful. Write these rules on a flip chart or chalkboard. Feel free to add any important rules that participants may have omitted. These rules should be kept visible during all sessions and referred to as needed throughout the programme. It may also be useful to laminate the list of rules so that it ensures durability. Another idea is to make playing cards that the adolescent girls can keep and bring with them to training – this may ensure a type of ‘ownership’ over the rules.
Establish Ground Rules, such as:
- Participants have the right to “pass” on activities/questions that feel uncomfortable
- It is all right to feel embarrassed or not to know answers to everything
- Everyone’s opinions are to be respected
- All questions will be addressed appropriately
- Be discreet about group discussions (i.e., no gossiping)
- Speak for yourself. Use “I statements” to state opinions or feelings
- Respect others’ differences
To make informed choices, participants need current and accurate information and a wide range of learning resources. Not only do they need to access the information, but they also need to learn how to interpret and make responsible decisions about the appropriateness of this information. By learning how to evaluate multiple perspectives, form their own opinions, and clarify their own individual values, participants develop life skills that facilitate independence and respect for self and others.45
Within a sport programme, suggested guidelines for fostering a safe and supportive learning environment include the following:46
- Provide a physical space that helps participants feel comfortable and safe.
- Organisations need to make a conscious decision about how and when to conduct sessions for girls and boys separately or together. It is important, however, that girls and boys receive SRHR information about both genders. For example, one of our programme partners in Kenya organised a reproductive health day – all sessions were mixed apart from the final one on menstruation which was done separately but both boys and girls had menstruation sessions.
- If the programme uses learning resources, please ensure that they are made available or easily accessible to participants, taking into account the need for confidentiality and/or anonymity.
- Help avoid difficult situations by having the team develop and post ground rules, reviewing them before each session begins.
- Respect confidentiality, except where it is required by law to disclose information (e.g., child abuse, protection issues, sexual abuse and dangerous situations). This needs to be made clear to the participants and you need very skilled facilitators to do this.
- Be prepared for varied responses from participants in reaction to sexual material (e.g., interest, sarcasm, uncontrollable giggling, embarrassment, shyness, bragging, making fun of others).
- Consult with parents, caregivers, counsellors, and/or other professionals if participants display “warning behaviours” (e.g., sexual preoccupation/anxiety, interest in pornography, sexual aggression/obscenities, sexual graffiti, embarrassment of others with sexual gestures/references, violation of others’ body space, single occurrence of peeping or exposing with peers).
- Show an understanding for participants who come from varied backgrounds (cultural, religious, moral) and sexual experiences (e.g. dealing with STIs, survivors or offenders of sexual acts, teenage parents).
Useful Example – The Question Box
Tell the participants that they might have questions during the session that they are afraid to raise in front of their peers and friends. Let them know that they can write questions anonymously and place these in a Question Box that has been set up especially for the session. Questions can be answered after each session, or when appropriate.47
- Questions are encouraged and may be asked at any time. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
- It is okay for the facilitator, coach and participants to blush, feel embarrassed, or not know the answers to all questions.
- The facilitator or coach also may choose not to answer a question in front of participants.
- Things shared will be kept strictly confidential. They will not be discussed outside the group.