Iranian girls learn bodies not sinful

From the March-April 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Iranian girls learn bodies not sinful

In Iran, after the Islamic Revolution the whole issue of sexual health education was forgotten. Years later, a law made it compulsory for all marrying couples to attend a one-hour session at a local clinic on family planning and genetic diseases, including thalassemia— a serous inherited blood disorder.

We hypothesized that offering sexual health education to some of the most deprived girls in Tehran would result in the girls having more positive feelings about themselves and engaging in less risky sexual behavior. We initiated a program to try to do just that.

The girls, between 10 and 18, are often illiterate or uneducated, from poor backgrounds. Most are runaways, the others are criminals. None have ever had sexual health education, and their knowledge about themselves is only what they learned from their peers and tradition or religion.

We start by explaining the anatomy of the reproductive system, adolescence, sexual health, and sexually transmitted diseases. The girls are encouraged to talk, and they jump at the opportunity. This education offers an alternative to the more mainstream traditional and religious teachings that say women and their biological changing are the root of sin.

I have seen more than 700 girls, most of whom are on the run from home, start viewing puberty and its symptoms as natural, as opposed to a sin, defect or crisis. They love and respect their bodies and consequently their “selves” more. With that disappears hatred and the wish for revenge. They stop blaming their family and stop developing more behavioral disorders, which would lead to a vicious circle in the end.

Ideally, we would also educate them about sexual and emotional health in relationships, to have natural and safe sex, and turn into healthier adults. I would like to examine whether it will make the girls less prone to sexual abuse if they know and love their bodies, have higher self-confidence, learn how to say NO, and believe that their bodies belong to themselves, not to others to hurt.

—Iranian social worker

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