Discussing sensitive topics in the classroom can be nerve-racking, especially when teachers talk about the awkwardness of adolescence that all teenagers in the room have to face.
One day, I had to sit through one of these classes. My teacher flipped through slides on adolescent changes while the rest of the class sat tensed, wondering what slide would be discussed next.
She began by talking about peer pressure, puberty, and then the menstrual cycle. When she began speaking about menstruation, I, along with a group of girls, slowly sank into our seats as the boys in our class awkwardly laughed.
Shortly thereafter, I was approached by a high school student at a fundraiser. Her mission was to raise money to provide female toiletries to women in third world countries who don’t have access to them.
She described how the lack of availability of feminine hygiene products kept some girls from attending school, and I instantly thought back to my class and our teacher’s lecture about the menstrual cycle.
Little did I know that menstruation was truly something that set many females in developing countries and low-income communities back.
I found myself speaking to her openly about issues including menstrual hygiene and taboos, sexual harassment and mental health – issues that I would not normally be comfortable talking about in class.
This is when I realized the effect and importance of peer education.
Peer education has proven to be one of the most common and useful ways of spreading knowledge, whether it’s in school or in the workplace.
Peer education can be described as the passing of information from peer to peer of a similar age or social group.
In most cases, peer education is used to educate people of similar backgrounds on health knowledge and community behaviour; this allows peer groups to discuss issues at their own level and learn things for themselves without a formal teacher.
Peer education makes sense and is more effective than other methods of teaching as teenagers, especially young girls going through adolescence, find it easier to approach others going through similar experiences.
In our high school, our health class sometimes enforces this teaching style as a way of delicately introducing topics such as depression, substance abuse and reproduction. And we often prefer and feel more comfortable hearing and speaking about such material with our peers rather than from our teachers.
In countries around the world, peer education has been used to begin a dialogue about HIV, anaemia, and sexual and reproductive health.
Teens often participate in group projects, presentations and discussions which allow them to actively learn and engage with a topic, rather than listening to a teacher throw facts at them from a Powerpoint presentation.
Additionally, teenagers are more likely to relate to people their own age and comprehend the information presented. This exchange of experiences allows teenagers the opportunity to internalize information.
In developing countries, many young adults often are not adequately educated by their teachers and schools about their physical and mental health.
During adolescence, this knowledge is crucial to allow young people to go through these changes and develop into healthy adults. In India, girls are often unaware of normal changes in their bodies during puberty or ways to deal with any mental health issues that may arise.
Often girls drop out of school when they begin their menstrual cycle because of taboos around these issues and cultural beliefs stopping girls from attending school.
Additionally, stigmas surrounding mental health and violence are deeply embedded in society and have become social norms.
Peer education is one way of filling the gap in knowledge, changing attitudes, and creating a dialogue. It offers girls the chance to initiate the difficult conversations around these topics on their own, rather than waiting for adults or school staff to get them started.
In our lives, peer education exists as a way to connect the gap between student and teacher. We have personally found that peer education allows us to comfortably discuss sensitive issues with our peers and we know the beneficial impact it can have on female health education globally.
We are youth leaders working with an organization called Girls Health Champions which trains adolescent girls as health educators and focuses on using peer education as a way to solve the many challenges faced by India’s teens as they progress through adolescence.
The mission of this organization is to educate adolescent girls about basic health and to diminish negative social norms and taboos regarding mental and physical health.
We have already seen the results as many of the peer trainers and their classmates have described their comfort levels around talking to each other about sensitive topics improving.
Girls Health Champions works to end gender bias by training adolescent girls as peer to peer health educators globally.
This article is jointly authored by Navya Jain and Ritika Sinha. Navya Jain is a junior at Belmont High School, while Ritika Sinha is a sophomore at Brookline High School. <