What I Learned from Being a Sex Educator in Guatemala for a Month
By Chris Vargas, Planned Parenthood of New York City
Erin Brockovich once said, “I believe that in the absence of the truth, all of us stand helpless to defend ourselves, our families, and our health, which is the greatest gift we have.” This is so true when it comes to health education and sexual health. I’ve always believed that all people deserve access to the information they need to protect their health, and I recently got the opportunity to disseminate that knowledge when I was chosen to be one of Planned Parenthood Global’s 2016 Global Youth Ambassadors.
Being a Global Youth Ambassador allowed me to travel to the northern region of Guatemala called Peten and interact with other sexuality educators like myself for a month. The entire experience was surreal and beyond amazing.
I learned about the vicissitudes of sexual and reproductive health education in different countries of Latin America, including Guatemala, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. This opened my eyes to how imperative it is that there is easy access to sexual and reproductive health care in all parts of the world.
For a month, I was taken under the wing of an organization called Tan ux’il (pronounced Tan-o-cheel). What I learned from the organization’s 15 sex educators goes beyond what you can find in a textbook. They do many of the same activities that we do here in New York City: outreach, workshops, presentations, and even pop-up events. The educators stay after their workshop has been completed and hand out any free supplies they have available to the participants. They understand that not everyone has access to these supplies, including condoms, and handing them out after their workshops is the best way to reach the community. They taught me to be grateful for what I have, especially in regards to sexual and reproductive health care.
In Guatemala, there are geographical barriers that prevent people from procuring sexual and reproductive health care, including birth control. I learned that some residents have to travel up to three hours just to visit a clinic and another three just to get home. Some birth control methods are also scarce, including the patch, the NuvaRing, and the hormonal IUD. Since internal condoms are expensive to import and export, they’re extremely hard to come by. But the people I worked with found a way to counteract this by creating their own radio show where people can listen in and learn about various topics such as STDs, pregnancy, sex, healthy relationships, and birth control.
Tan ux’il is aware that their country does not have all the resources we have here in the United States, but it does not stop them from finding ways to get critical information to the people who deserve it, which includes everyone. They found ways to reach out to teenagers, adolescents, and adults in a way that makes all parties comfortable with talking and asking questions. For example, the educator would allow a student to place a dental dam on his arm and have another student taste, with the student’s consent, of course. They laugh and giggle, but it also teaches them how the method works and increases the comfort level.
The students are reassured that confidentiality is always respected and that it’s completely normal to be curious and ask questions, following the same protocol that we sexuality educators follow here at Planned Parenthood of New York City. They also played games to teach lessons about various topics, such as healthy relationships, abuse, and communication.
Traveling to Guatemala and meeting these fantastic people was life changing for me. I got to witness firsthand people who have more struggles and obstacles than I ever had in my life, but who still find optimism in their work and the energy to get that work done. An educator that I met named Yoni drives two hours just to get to work and two hours to head home every single day. The educators have to take a four-hour bus ride twice a month to another community just to do one workshop; without any guarantee that the students will show up. Even if one kid shows up, they still do the workshop and put their heart and soul in it because to them, if you can teach one kid, they did their job right.
In a country where many people do not live comfortably and are barely making ends meet, they still have hope in a better future where they are taking care of their health in any way possible.
In my time there, I visited four neighborhoods, facilitated three workshops, went to the beach and to the Mayan temples, and was even welcomed to the educators’ homes for dinner. Initially, I thought the educators would see me as an outsider from another country trying to “fix” their problems, but instead, they saw me a fellow educator, as one of them, and as family. We danced, went out, and worked together over the course of a month and we truly became family.
They taught me that no matter how bad it is, you can keep fighting, because whatever fight you are fighting, you are not fighting it alone. The fact that I was sent there as an educator to learn from them sends a message that people across the world had taken notice of their work.
New York City is obviously very different from Guatemala, but so much of what I learned applies to my work as a sexuality educator in NYC. People here face different struggles and access issues, but I can bring the spirit of the educators I met in Guatemala to the young people I educate here.
For so long, my people have been marginalized and they continue to be, but Tan ux’il taught me that people trying to stop you should only make you fight harder. When all seems lost, keep that hope alive and keep being determined. They taught me the value of having students feel comfortable in your classroom and the importance of our work.
We really are in this together, no matter what part of the world you live in. Obstacles to accessing sexual and reproductive health care are a universal issue, and this experience only gave me more the reason to keep on advocating and fighting.
There are people in the world who need help and need support, and the people in Guatemala are a prime example of that. My hope that one day, access to health care will be universal and easy for everyone comes from the hope of the people in Tan ux’il. When people who do not have an abundance of resources still have hope in themselves and have faith that the system can one day change, we can have hope too.