Giving them a sympathetic hearing

By Zubeida Mustafa

Any adolescent passing through what adults refer to as “that difficult phase of life” would jump at an invitation like the above. This is the need of the day when not only an individual but also society is in the process of change, writes Zubeida Mustafa

This is what a flyer given to me in Morocco on my recent visit there said (the original was in French and Arabic):

Youth Health Area

We listen to you and take care of you

What’s it about?

If you have a health problem;

If you have questions regarding a topic that’s worrying you;

If you need to confide in somebody;

Youth Health Area is at your service!

They are here for you;

A team of health professionals will give you a warm welcome, personal care, and will answer your questions while ensuring full confidentiality.

And on top of that – it’s free!!!

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Any adolescent passing through what adults refer to as “that difficult phase of life” would jump at an invitation like the above. This is the need of the day when not only an individual but also society is in the process of change.

It makes sense that the changes — especially behavioural changes — are planned and follow a direction. It is foolish to try and block change because it will inevitably come over a period of time unless of course a society has fallen into a state of stagnation. But if the changes come at random driven by social circumstances and economic needs things can get quite chaotic.

Morocco, where I was at the invitation of the Population Institute, Washington, to visit some projects, believes that the process of change must be orderly to be long term and enduring. Its approach is to start re-orienting people at an early age. That is, catch ‘em young, as they say. I found that the Moroccans have adopted this strategy to great effect and it is working magnificently. The youth, who are the beneficiaries of many projects, are outgoing, dynamic and full of zeal.

In the school we visited on the outskirts of Marrakesh, we were introduced to Saadia, a young girl in her teens who is an active member of the school health club that has been organized in this “lycee” with 1,200 students on its roll. Saadia briefed us about the club that has been functioning since September 2003. With 40 members, the club focuses on six key issues which are regarded as posing the most serious potential health hazard to the young people of Morocco. These are smoking, Aids, pollution, drug addiction, prostitution and diabetes.

The idea is to create awareness among the youth in order to bring about a change in their attitudes. The children are encouraged to do research on these subjects under the guidance of their teachers and prepare charts and graphics to project their findings. They have been provided computers to enable them to look up information on the web. In this exploratory process the young minds are imbibing healthy habits and changing their lifestyle for the better.

Saadia demonstrated her club’s charts and told us with great confidence about the dangers of smoking. It is unlikely that Saadia after having worked on those drawings of blackened lungs juxtaposed with pink and healthy respiratory organs, will ever touch a cigarette in her lifetime. And this message is not for Saadia alone. She would obviously pass on the anti-smoking message subtly to her peers and siblings, not just in school but also outside before they reach the age when they are likely to experiment with cigarettes.

A common mode of transmission of information is through the cultural activities the club organizes. For instance plays and cultural weeks have a social content which disseminates health education far and wide.

Even more significant is the project Fatema and Kazi, two teachers of the Marrakesh School, have introduced in their institution. Mindful of the mental health of the youngsters and the stresses and strains they are subjected to in their adolescence, these teachers are acting as counsellors to the students.

“The youth are encouraged to come and talk to any of us about any problem that is upsetting them. We have also given them a telephone number where they can call if they need to talk to someone urgently. The students are assured of confidentiality and a sympathetic hearing. They may be having problems with their parents, teachers or colleagues. They may be just in need of a patient ear to hear them out to bring some sanity to their lives. This facility which we have provided is appreciated by the parents,” Mr Kazi told me.

A society which is youth-centred and cares for its children can produce wonders. Aren’t they the citizens of tomorrow? What they learn today they will practise tomorrow. If they learn to love, care, shun violence, live in peace and cherish good health, hygiene and cleanliness, they will lead society in that direction within a few years when they enter adulthood.

Morocco has learnt this lesson fast. Most of its programmes have a strong pro-youth orientation. The family planning association office we visited in Fez had a long queue of women waiting to be served. They had come for contraceptive services. But the IEC (information, education and communication) side of the programme was managed preponderantly by young men and women. They performed a small skit for us in the office to demonstrate their strategies. Normally they go out and perform it as a street theatre. It was all about Aids and its prevention.

While they sing and dance and make merry, these children learn about a deadly disease, which is fast emerging as a major threat to the life of the youth all over the world. They get knowledge about safe sex, the need to space babies, and other such topical issues which they would never learn about in normal course.

In Rabat we visit the Yousoufia Adolescents Health Centre which has been set up by the government. (The flyer from where the passage is quoted above was given to us at Yousoufia.) In fact eight major cities of Morocco have similar centres. They have been set up after careful planning. Nearly a quarter of the population of Morocco is under 15 years of age. “We selected the site after a study was done on the age profile of the population in the area and its interest in health. It has evolved as a community centre where the youth come to enjoy themselves,” says Benouin Aziz, the director of the Yousoufia Centre.

Aziz proudly points out the psychological support, health information and youth activities the centre facilitates. The focus is on anti-smoking drives, campaigns against drug addiction and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Has all this made any difference to the youth of Morocco? One expects it would have. I looked up the UNDP’s Human Development Report to ascertain if there had been an impact. The statistics were reassuring. In the last decade the youth literacy rate has jumped up from 55 per cent to 69.5 per cent. Nearly 35 per cent of male adults and two per cent women are smokers but this rate should go down as the youth exposed to the anti-smoking messages in school enter adulthood. I could not lay my hands on the figures for crime and mental health but it seems unlikely that with such good care given to the youth there should be a high incidence of deliquency and crime.

Source: Dawn