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Amina Evangelista Swanepoel has been empowering girls through health education


“'Something happened',” Amina Evangelista Swanepoel pauses. “It was always how they explained their pregnancy: ‘My parents were away and my boyfriend came over and something happened and now I’m pregnant’.”

Amina is talking about the female students of her mother, Susan Evangelista, and the reasons they gave her for dropping out of school.

It alarmed Susan so much that sometime in 2009, she called on her daughter Amina, who was then an unhappy consultant in a non-profit management firm in the US, to come home and together, they put up Roots of Health.

Roots of Health is a non-profit organization based in Puerto Princesa, Palawan that reaches out to women in marginalized communities to educate them on reproductive health and to give them access to reproductive healthcare.

Amina and her husband Marcus had only planned to work with her mother for two years, but there was so much demand and need. Nine years later, they’re still here educating women.

It’s hard and noble work — one that has resulted in a partnership with the Departments of Health and Education, and one that has earned Roots of Health and Amina and Susan admiration and acclaim from various global organizations. Most recently, Amina was inducted as an Ashoka Fellow for all her hard work.

Below, our shero tells us about the importance of sex education, the many crazy sex myths that her group needs to quash, and working with her mother and husband.

There is so much disinformation about sex. They believe that jumping up and down after sex will prevent pregnancy. They believe that drinking detergent will cure them of STIs, because if it cleans the outside, it can clean the inside. They believe that if it’s your first time to have sex, you can’t get pregnant.

Initially, we wanted to teach college students, but when we got here, we learned when you get to college, you are already privileged. Girls having teenage pregnancies in Palawan are 14-15 years old. So we started teaching in high schools. 

We have to teach young people so they have the language for this. So they won’t just say ‘something happened.’ So they will understand what it is that happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening.

Anatomy is just one part of our program. We find that what's more important is for us to talk about relationships, and power dynamics, and consent.

We had a med student from Stanford come intern with us and she was doing this study on teenage pregnancy. She interviewed about 30 young moms and from the transcripts, when she talked to the girls about the first time they had sex, they described rape.

They didn’t call it that, but they would say something like ‘I didn’t want to, but he forced me.’ Or something like ‘Napilitan lang ako’. That made us realize that kids aren’t talking about this. There’s also a side issue of marital rape. They had no idea of the fact that a woman should have autonomy over her body, even when she’s married or in a relationship.

She has the right to say no to sex. That is something nobody’s ever said to these women, or to young people.

All they ever heard of homosexuality is it’s a sin or it’s a curse, or it’s funny. When we’re discussing homosexuality, a lot of them say it’s a choice. So we had a trainer once who asked them back: ‘Can you tell me when you decided to be straight?’ And you could see it was a light bulb moment for so many of them. 

 

Amina being inducted as an Ashoka Fellow. February 21, 2018
Amina being inducted as an Ashoka Fellow. February 21, 2018

A lot of teachers who don’t like our programs say we’re encouraging sex. And actually, it’s the opposite. We want people informed. Studies show that the more sex ed young people have, the more they delay sex. They’re not curious because they know what’s happening.

The most important thing is to find a common ground. Some of the more conservative people in the Department of Education don’t believe in comprehensive sex education but we can agree that we want kids to stay in school and not get pregnant. It’s about building on our shared foundations.

Dream plotting is one of the things we do. We ask them, what do you want to be? And for many of them, nobody’s ever asked them that. So when they say what they want, we ask, how would an unplanned pregnancy fit in? That makes them realize, if I have an unplanned pregnancy, I’m not gonna be able to attain that dream.

Many of the women want to become a saleslady. They all want to be a sales lady because we now we have malls in Puerto Princesa.

We talk about sex all the time in our work. And it’s something everybody loves to talk about. But it doesn’t get awkward [with my husband]. The passion is still there.

We are a human rights-based organization. We protect people’s rights and we help them recognize and realize their rights. And I think the fact that we are considered trusted adults for many of these young people, those things really make a difference for them.

I kind of feel that the political and religious debates are privileges that the middle and upper class engage in. The people that we work with are struggling to have something to eat tomorrow.

They’re not getting involved in those policy debates. And it’s ironic because it’s about them. It affects them. But you know, when we are talking about the RH Law, most of the women we work with, they knew that it was something that would be good for them but they don’t have the time to engage in those debates.

Nobody has ever said "because of the church". Most of the women that we serve, if they’re not using contraception but they don’t want to have a baby, we ask them why not and nobody has ever said because of the church. They always say, they can’t afford it. So it’s purely economics. So maybe if we were working at a higher strata of the economy, maybe there would be more of those issues. But because we’re working with the most marginalized of the communities, it hasn’t played it.

My parents are so cool. I’ve always had a very close relationship with my parents. I don’t necessarily think it was one time that we sat together and had the sex talk. It was a series of years where I would ask something and they would answer and it would be enough for me at that time and then maybe a while later, I had more questions.

This is part of what we teach with comprehensive sex ed and age appropriate sex ed. If you start talking about sex and sexuality when they’re young, it never becomes this awkward thing because it’s part of life. And it’s something to be celebrated. I was raised like that, and we’re trying to raise our kids to be open about it, and not to use code words — there are so many code words – I think just raising people to talk frankly about sex and not to find it shameful. It helps throughout your life. — AT, GMA News

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