Sex is everywhere you look, from fashion magazines to movies, but young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) still know very little about how to have a responsible sex life. Discussions on the topic still cause shame, discomfort, and embarrassment stemming from a sense of the subject’s ‘immorality.’ A standardized sex and reproductive health education class for students in BiH’s education system would, therefore, provide an important and useful step towards the destigmatization of dialogue about safe sex.
“Without a formal education, young people can get information on their own, online, from friends, or from our organization or similar ones,” says Damir Zečević, a trainer at the Association XY, a sex health and education organization.
According to Zečević, so far there is no way for the ministries in charge to deal with the absence of such a class, although the situation in the field tells us it is very necessary.
Zečević points out that young people are beginning to have sex at younger and younger ages and that they need to be aware of how important it is to be responsible about it. “It is devastating that buying condoms is viewed as something embarrassing and that, by avoiding such an act, they are endangering their health along with the health of their partner,” says Zečević.
Association XY also gives presentations about sexual and reproductive health in high schools. “It is always a sensitive subject and it starts almost the same everywhere: laughter, discomfort, shame – until we ‘break the ice’. Then I see that young people understand that it is about their health and that’s when they become interested,” he explains.
After holding several such sessions at her high school, Vanja Tešanović, a peer sexual health educator, agrees with Zečević. “In the beginning, I was the silly girl who talked about condoms, but I’ve managed to get through to my peers. They are especially surprised when I explain that, during unprotected sex, they have sex not only with that person but also with all of the person’s former partners, which gets them thinking about all the risks involved,” says Tešanović, who adds that, “in general, girls are more interested in this than boys.”
Both Zečević and Tešanović note that it is much easier when young people are working with other young people. “Peer-to-peer education doesn’t have as many obstacles. It is much more relaxed and easier for them to ask us something than it is for them to ask someone older,” they explain.
Our interviewees told us that young people are aware of the risks of unprotected sex but simply believe that “those things happen to other people, not them.”
“A lot of them can name the most common sexually transmitted diseases, but they think that trusting their partner is enough to keep them safe,” says Zečević.
Tešanović laments that a lot of young women are embarrassed to go to regular gynecological exams. “Most go rarely and only if they notice a problem or suspect some disease. It is rarely about prevention and I think education is to blame for that,” she explains.
Jelena Malinić, a medical technician at the Eastern Ilidža Health Care Center, confirms that young women avoid going to the gynecologist. “We are not happy with the frequency of young women’s checkups or preventive exams. They mostly come when they experience obvious symptoms of some disease,” says Malinić.
She explains that the problem might be that a significant number of STIs have no clear symptoms, mostly in the case of men, whereas with women the symptoms usually appear later. “With proper contraceptive methods and regular checkups, one can prevent serious diseases or complications and I cannot stress enough how important it is to be responsible,” she adds.
Malinić says that young women mostly come when talked into it by their friends or after exposure to organized campaigns. “Our health care center was featured as part of a youth project, after which we had an increase in visits, which tells us that young people need to be guided and even encouraged. No medical exam should be viewed as embarrassing, I always emphasize that,” she says.
We do not know the precise number of STIs that exist because there are no widespread statistics collected and many of those afflicted look for help in private clinics, explains Malinić. “There is, however, an increase in patients infected with certain forms of HPV (human papillomavirus), which are widespread and contagious. Luckily, most strands are treatable without complications, although girls get information on the internet and then come in scared and confused,” she adds.
Our interviewees agree that there needs to be a class that deals with issues of sexual and reproductive health. Tanja Maletić, a teacher at the Pale primary school, says that there is plenty of room for such a class. “The curriculum allows us time to touch upon the basics of this issue in Homeroom. We can also accommodate guest speakers of certain organizations if they fulfill the conditions set by the ministry, but those are small steps which don’t provide a systemic solution,” she explains.
According to her, it is important that the public has clear information on what such a class entails. “I dare say that out society views this as some sort of immoral class, therefore, it would be good to clarify that it is just about protecting young people’s health, which does no harm to anyone,” says Maletić.
When it comes to students’ acceptance of such a class, Maletić stresses that “as with any other class, the teacher’s approach is what matters. If you are good at your job, dedicated, and loving, there will be no problems.”
We asked Marinko Papaz, a high school senior, if he thought a class on sex education would be useful. His answer was an emphatic yes. “Many of my peers know very little about the subject and they expose themselves to disease and risks out of ignorance. They are ashamed to ask and then get into trouble,” he says.
Jelena Tadić, another high school student, agrees that there are many areas surrounding this issue that young people need clarification on. “It isn’t something you can ask your parents or teachers about. You only have the Internet and your peers. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Maybe such a class would be weird in the beginning, but I am sure it would benefit us,” she concludes.