Culturally-focused abstinence program making a difference for youth<br>

“Why Wait? Why Suffer?” are the questions one student poses on the subject of abstinence in the 2001 Abstinence Only Creative Contest recently published.

Geri Bahe-Hernandez, Director, Community Health Services at the Tuba City Indian Medical Center, poses the same question to her 12 classes of 5th and 6th graders at both the Tuba City public schools and the Tuba City Boarding School each semester.

“Some of the things we’re doing are focusing on culture,” she says, “My culture says, don’t bother boys, focus on education.”

Almost four years ago, Bahe-Hernandez applied for a grant from the Arizona Department of Health to fund the Abstinence Program in Tuba City. Due to Indian Health Service lawyers, and other hurdles that needed to be jumped, the 2000-2001 school year is the first year that the program is in place.

“We don’t teach safe sex or the use of condoms,” says Bahe-Hernandez. “We teach abstinence, values, and male and female anatomy.”

Each student, with parental consent, is given a pre-test and post-test, as well as visual learning aids, such as male and female anatomy parts and physiology. “As we grow up, we’re just like anyone, we get curious. Studies are now showing [the students] are choosing to abstain,” she says.

Each student is given a pledge card that reinforces the values taught in the class and encourages the students to make a promise to themselves to abstain. “The pledge card is not for their mother or teacher, it’s for themselves,” Bahe-Hernandez says.

However, from the very beginning, parents thought she was promoting sex. “Some of the parents said ‘no’, we do our teaching at home. But, we need parents out here talking about it. Students receive the wrong information from their friends,” she says, “Four parents sat in our class; we invite them to come to class and to give their input.”

Bahe-Hernandez also visited with elderly people as well discussing this program and asking for their input.

Says Bahe-Hernandez, some grandparents only speak Navajo while their grandchildren only speak English. This program is meant to mediate between the two, reiterating the values the grandparents have to share.

Each group has ten sessions that encompass dating, relationships, clanships, love and infatuation. Students watch videos, participate in games, and even learn how to report incest, sexual molestation, and abuse.

Some even get to try on the ‘empathy belly’, which is a sleeveless jacket that has pregnancy features, such as larger breasts and a weighted, swollen belly.

“I have girls and boys try on the empathy belly and walk around in it. I asked one student to go get a drink of water and she said, ‘No, I’m embarrassed,’. I said to her, ‘Well, think if you had to look that way for nine months,’” says Bahe-Hernandez, “Boys, as well as girls, understand the result of having sex before marriage.”

Fifth grade students may seem a little young to have this class, however, this is the age when girls often hit puberty.

Since the long-term benefits of these classes have yet to be seen, Bahe-Hernandez still has her work cut out for her.

“Our grant is initially for two years and renewable after that,” she says. “We also raise money from food sales, raffles, and donations.”

“It’s a great program,” Bahe-Hernandez continues, “My reward, I know I can’t see it right now, but I see it on a daily basis. Hopefully, I’m making an impact.”

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