…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Please add sex educator to my repertoire

I would not call myself a health educator. In fact, before coming to Peace Corps, the only teaching I did was in bible study with jr. highers and with new employees at the construction company I worked for. Never in my wildest dreams could I see myself becoming a teacher. Then Peace Corps happened. I applied to be a small business adviser. I told them I’d go anywhere in the world as long as I could do business. It turned out a little different than I imagined. But, I ended up on a 7 mile island located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, teaching. My main job for the last year has been improving the English of my form 2 and Vocational students as well as teaching business, computers and now, sex ed.

Sex is not discussed in Tonga. Parents don’t speak to their children about the subject. It is taboo for young adults to ask their parents about the subject. It is also not acceptable for brothers, sisters and cousins to discuss the topic together. At Camp Glow earlier in the year, Tonga Family Health did a session on safe sex and explained how a woman becomes pregnant. We had to inform all of the parents that this subject would be talked about. When looking for a site to hold our camp, this session became one of the reasons certain sites wouldn’t allow us to use them. Even though sex isn’t talked about; the spread of STI’s and the amount of high school girls becoming pregnant are on the rise.

After Camp Glow, I had a great conversation with one of the presenters from Tonga Family Health. She explained that a massive campaign has begun to persuade the Ministry of Education that sex education should be a part of the regular curriculum in Tonga. She shared that it has been a difficult road, filled with naysayers who don’t think the subject should be taught in schools. She also gave me some curriculum to do with my students if my school would allow it.

I approached Sister Malia (my principal) one evening at our kitchen table. I explained how well the session had gone with the girls at Camp Glow and asked if I could try the curriculum with my vocational students. She was more than happy to allow it and said she wanted to ask me to do something like this. (Side Note: The Catholics in Tonga are one of the most progressive groups! Encouraging contraception! Go figure!) We had to make sure that there weren’t any brothers or sisters or in the class. There is a rule in Tongan culture called “Fakaapaapa.” Brothers and sisters can’t talk about certain subjects. I also asked if there would be a male teacher that would be interested in helping me since I have mostly guys in my class. She said there would be no one who would feel comfortable with that. So I began.
We talked about the biology behind pregnancy, safe sex, STI’s and AIDS. We also talked about personal responsibility and being prepared for the consequences of your actions. About a month in, I needed some help. My Tongan isn’t good enough to convey some of the concepts. I asked a fellow volunteer John if he could come in and help me a bit. He did a great job with the guys especially. He also invited any of them to drop by his house at any time to ask more questions. Two guys took him up on that!

I was amazed at the misinformation that these students shared with me. Things like “girls shouldn’t wash their hair when they are on their period” and “if you have sex only once, you can’t get pregnant” and “you can use a plastic bag as a condom.” There were some instances in the class when things like this would come up and I just had to stop to make sure they understood the truth.

During the last week of the unit, a representative from the Ha’apai Youth Congress came and shared. She explained that her organization and the hospital in the next village over do have tests for pregnancy and STI’s. She also talked about confidentiality, an unusual notion to Tongans (everyone tells everyone everything all of the time) and that all tests are private.

If anything, I am thankful that these students now have correct information. And this time, I hope they tell everyone they know.


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