The training Yangzong provides to her peers helps them stay healthy.
Training helps migrant youth in China develop skills for life
Yangzong grew up in Tibet, where sex wasn’t talked about in the home. She and her friends learned about sex from magazines and the Internet. Often, the information they gleaned wasn’t accurate—or enough. “A classmate of mine got pregnant and was forced to leave school with her boyfriend,” describes Yangzong. “I always feel so sorry for her.”
In her teens Yangzong moved to an urban center in China’s Hubei province to attend a vocational school, where she enrolled in a “life-planning skills” training. The training uses games, role-playing, and discussion to help students set life goals and avoid pitfalls. “I learned a lot of information about drugs, AIDS, and sex,” Yangzong says.
The training fed a spark in Yangzong, a self-described “little and timid girl.” She stepped up to become a peer educator, or leader of the trainings. “I gained self-confidence and learned to speak in public,” she reports. Yangzong has since helped more than 500 fellow students in her school become better equipped to stay healthy and achieve their goals.
The training that Yangzong and other peer educators provide in school dormitories is part of a large-scale project for improving the health of youth in China. Since 2000, PATH and the China Family Planning Association have been implementing a comprehensive program to meet the needs of young people. The program includes a life-planning skills training that takes place in schools and workplaces.
Learning life skills in the work place
Many young people move from rural areas of China to the cities to pursue higher education and jobs. Cut off from their families and navigating new experiences and temptations, they are made vulnerable by their lack of family and community support. Poor knowledge and inability to communicate about topics that are traditionally taboo—such as romantic relationships, sex, contraception, condoms, and sexually transmitted diseases—also put them at risk.
Fortunately, the schools and factories where they end up can be convenient venues for reaching young migrants. For example, one company headquartered in Shenzhen employs more than 10,000 people in 40 sites throughout the country. PATH and the Family Planning Association first trained human resource managers at individual sites. The managers in turn provided life-planning skills training to employees. An evaluation at one site indicated that the dropout rate among female employees because of unintended pregnancy had fallen from almost 31 percent to 20 percent. One human resources manager told PATH staff, “I am so glad to see that our employees now have a clearer goal leading to a happy life and have learned useful skills.”
Although some business leaders were initially hesitant to host the training, demonstration meetings and encouragement from local government convinced them to try it. Now the business community sees the training as a win-win activity, in part because it positively affects the bottom line. Some business leaders have even donated money to the project. As one factory supervisor noted, “The project presents huge benefits for us. It teaches our workers skills needed to protect themselves against abuse and unwanted pregnancy. This will ultimately boost our productivity.”
The training has received an enthusiastic response from participants as well, not only because it provides important information, but also because it is fun and interactive. In one session, the trainer hands everyone a piece of paper and asks them to get it signed by someone else. Then the trainer asks the participants to find a new partner and repeat the process until they each have five signatures. The trainer then asks, “Assuming that each signature means having sex, what are some of the consequences?” After some discussion, the trainer asks those with an X on their papers to raise their hands: an X means the person has HIV. “How many think you had sex with this person?” asks the trainer. Only five people raise their hand. Then the trainer asks, “Now will the people who had sex with these five people please raise their hand?” Among other lessons, the exercise highlights that HIV can be transmitted through sex and that you cannot tell by appearance who has it.
A model for changing fate
The project has become a model of success. Starting in 2001, PATH and the China Family Planning Association piloted the training in 12 major cities and two rural counties, and it has expanded to more than 200 additional counties with funding from the Chinese government and the UNFPA. Youth programming is now an integral component of the Family Planning Association’s five-year strategic plan.
Most important, the project has had an impact on thousands of youth, many of whom had never set life goals and did not have the information they needed to protect themselves. As Yangzong, the young Tibetan peer educator, put it so well, “The practical knowledge and skills in the project may not only change the fate of a person, but also the fate of a nation.”
Photo: Jianzhong Chen.