Jalan Washington

(WOMENSENEWS)–Rosa Cepeda, a 17-year-old senior at the Bronx Academy of Letters, remembers counting the number of pregnant teens, or “bellies,” in her Bronx neighborhood and wondered whether there was something that she could do to help.

In 2005, she got her chance, when she found out about NARAL Pro-choice New York’s program to train teens to convey information about sex and health to peers at schools and youth organizations throughout New York City.

Cepeda underwent three months of training through the TORCH (Teen Outreach Reproductive Challenge) program that met twice a week for two hours each day and paid participants $7 an hour. Physician guest speakers spoke about abortion, reproductive rights and emergency contraception and teens practiced running workshops and spurring discussion.

Cepeda and other peer educators say some teens believe abortion is wrong in all circumstances–even after a rape or to save a woman’s life. Others are confused about the difference between the abortion pill and emergency contraception.

Cepeda says she now regularly discusses contraception, abortion and sex at evening and weekend workshops at school-based health clinics, after-school programs and youth centers where she brings information about TORCH and displays condoms. While many sex education classes in New York state go well beyond abstinence in discussing the means of contraception the use of actual “demonstration items” can be restricted altogether or limited to condoms.

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Cepeda says that before her training program she had little access to information about sexual health. Her father refused to talk to her about sex, she says, and once confiscated a pack of condoms that a friend had given her. She said that she was disappointed by her health class at school.

The TORCH program, launched in 1996 with three peer educators, has trained hundreds of teens to become peer educators and joins similar efforts to counter the abstinence-only groundswell in sexual education that began in 1981 with the Reagan-era Adolescent Family Life Act. That law started off with $11 million in federal funding to promote chastity and self-discipline.

Today federal spending on abstinence education, with all funding sources combined, exceeds $1.2 billion, says Jennifer Augustine, director of the HIV-Sexually Transmitted Infection division of Washington-based Advocates for Youth, one of the largest national organizations dedicated to educating teens about their sexuality.

Around 10 years ago, as contraception has become increasingly difficult for adults to teach in schools–and with no federal comprehensive sex education program in existence–health advocacy groups began making it possible for teens to talk to the kind of counselors they would probably prefer anyway: their peers.

Every Thursday afternoon, for instance, one of the board rooms at Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood’s Albany, N.Y., office is converted into a walk-in Teen Clinic, a teen-friendly space that includes snacks, music and bean-bag chairs.

Abstinence Called Safest

Peer educators at these gatherings present abstinence as the safest method, but also demonstrate contraceptive kits and show young women how to use an IUD, the Ring, the condom, foam, the diaphragm, the birth control pill and emergency contraception. They also explain that New York state law allows reproductive health care services to adolescents with no age limits.

The Teen Clinic is staffed by three peer educators from STARS (Seriously Talking About Responsible Sex), a program sponsored by Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood that began in 1997 to curb teen pregnancies in Albany. Now, among other things, it recruits and trains a new group of high school students from nearby counties each year to act as peer educators.

Peer educators also work on ways to ease communication between teens and key adults.

For the past three years, TORCH has run a role-playing workshop with clinicians at approximately 15 teaching hospitals throughout New York City. Several teens in the program encountered adults who had a thing or two to learn from them.

Desaray Rodriguez, a 17-year-old TORCH member who attends New Design High School in Manhattan found that in one case, a doctor did not greet her or even look up from his clipboard when she came into the room. Some doctors, she says, would fail to ask parents to leave the room, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society for Adolescent Medicine recommend that doctor-adolescent discussions be confidential.

Jalan Washington, a 23-year-old graduate student at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, is a peer educator with the Young Women of Color Leadership Council, an HIV-prevention program run by Advocates for Youth.

Along with other peer educators Washington developed a workshop on parent-teen communication about sex. “Keeping It Real at the Kitchen Table” offers parents and teens real-world starting points–such as a condom box falling off a grocery store shelf–for frank talk about sex and birth control.

Washington says she applied three years ago for a position as a peer educator in the Young Women of Color Leadership Council after hearing about the program through a friend at the University of Virginia. She was motivated by another friend who had became pregnant while still in high school and hadn’t understood her contraceptive options.

‘I Like Dispelling Myths’

Now, Washington says she is known as the sex expert among her friends. “I like dispelling myths,” she says. “I think you just have to be open and honest about sex.”

Washington says the eight-week health and nutrition course taught by her high school gym teacher in Buffalo, N.Y., was not nearly as informative as her peer training. She says the course spent only a few weeks on sex and used outdated textbooks from the 1970s and 1980s. She remembers being shown “horrible pictures” of sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes sores.

Advocates for Youth also operates online peer sex education programs such as Youth Resource, a Web site for and by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens which began in 1996.

Many female teens are embarrassed when they come to health clinics such as Planned Parenthood, says Migcalia Torres, a 16-year-old peer educator with the STARS program. Peer counselors can help by speaking to them in a comfortable setting such as the Teen Clinic before they meet a clinician.

“Most people don’t know that there is female contraception,” says Anurati Mathur, a peer educator with MySistahs, a Web-based program run by Advocates for Youth. “Everyone thinks it’s the male responsibility to wear the condom; they’re not aware of other types of contraception for women. There’s pressure to be sexually active, but no positive pressure to be safe while being sexually active.”

Irene Lew is the editorial intern at Women’s eNews.

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