Sexual health empowerment for young people with disabilities

Girls learning how to put sanitary towels on during HERA educational sessions

In Macedonia, HERA's special educator, Zaklina Stepanoska, recalls the reactions of parents when she explained the programme. They were running an inititiave for young people with disabilities to learn about their sexual health.

“There were parents who cried when I told them about this,” she says. “I asked them why and they told me it was because they had thought their children, who were in their mid 20s, would never fall in love or have girlfriends. It touched them very much and surprised them that somebody had thought about their children receiving this education and maybe having a relationship.”

The programme has already been useful in changing behaviour in the centre. “In the spring and summer, when we're outside in the garden a lot, the girls will go crazy when some guy walks past, because they like boys,” Zaklina explains. “They will shout and talk to them even though they don't know them. So we make them understand that they can say 'hi' to people they already know, but not strangers, unless we allow them to.

“We also had a big problem with boys masturbating. Since the sessions on public and private space we don't have this problem any more. When a staff member sees that someone is going to start doing it, they ask them to go to the toilet, or they take them to a private space. They don't say 'stop', because if they're stopped they can become aggressive. Back then they didn't know how to deal with this. Now they tell them it's not suitable to do in public. And the boys hardly ever try to do it any more.

“We had a problem, too, with girls not knowing how to put sanitary towels in. Their parents would put a towel in at home and the girl would forget about it. Now they bring towels themselves and they know how to change them.

“The young people are very interested in the programme. It's something new. They're very interested in the fact that can become independent outside the centre, that they can go out alone, that they can be with someone, with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and that they are allowed to do that. Because their parents usually scorn them when they started talking about these things.

“There are changes in the way they behave. They don't talk to strangers any more. They know the appropriate words for parts of the body, and they're not embarrassed to say them out loud any more. In the beginning when we had individual sessions the girls would start crying and saying 'this is shameful'. They would not even utter the words. Now they're free to talk about it. They have become closer to us. They would come to us and say if they have a crush on somebody. They laugh about it, they tease each other. They're much more relaxed than they used to be.

“There are two users here who act as boyfriend and girlfriend in the centre. They live far apart but here they watch films together, they dance, they kiss. They can't be separated! It's a positive thing; they are happier.”