Young person in Tibet.

The training Yangzong provided to her peers helped them stay healthy. Photo: Jianzhong Chen.

Skills for life for migrant youth in China

Editor’s note: PATH has been improving young people’s sexual and reproductive awareness since our earliest days by meeting youth where they live, learn, and work with critical information and resources. Our China Youth Reproductive Health project became a model for increasing self-esteem and safe sexual practices amongst Chinese adolescents, many of whom had migrated to cities on their own in pursuit of education and employment.

Yangzong grew up in Tibet, where sex wasn’t talked about in the home. She and her friends learned about sex from magazines and the Internet. Often, the information they gleaned wasn’t accurate—or enough. “A classmate of mine got pregnant and was forced to leave school with her boyfriend,” said Yangzong. “I always feel so sorry for her.”

In her teens Yangzong moved to an urban center in China’s Hubei province to attend a vocational school, where she enrolled in a “life-planning skills” training. The training used games, role-playing, and discussion to help students set life goals and avoid pitfalls. “I learned a lot of information about drugs, AIDS, and sex,” Yangzong said.

The training fed a spark in Yangzong, a self-described “little and timid girl.” She stepped up to become a peer educator, or leader of the trainings. “I gained self-confidence and learned to speak in public,” she said. Yangzong helped more than 500 fellow students in her school become better equipped to stay healthy and achieve their goals.

The training that Yangzong and other peer educators provided in school dormitories was part of a large-scale project for improving the health of youth in China. PATH and the China Family Planning Association implemented a comprehensive program to meet the needs of young people. The program included a life-planning skills training that took place in schools and workplaces.

Learning life skills in the work place

Many young people move from rural areas of China to the cities to pursue higher education and jobs. Cut off from their families and navigating new experiences and temptations, they are made vulnerable by their lack of family and community support. Poor knowledge and inability to communicate about topics that are traditionally taboo—such as romantic relationships, sex, contraception, condoms, and sexually transmitted infections—also put them at risk.

Fortunately, the schools and factories where they end up can be convenient venues for reaching young migrants.

For example, one company headquartered in Shenzhen employed more than 10,000 people in 40 sites throughout the country. PATH and the Family Planning Association first trained human resource managers at individual sites. The managers in turn provided life-planning skills training to employees. An evaluation at one site indicated that the dropout rate among female employees because of unintended pregnancy had fallen from almost 31 percent to 20 percent. One human resources manager told PATH staff, “I am so glad to see that our employees now have a clearer goal leading to a happy life and have learned useful skills.”

Although some business leaders were initially hesitant to host the training, demonstration meetings and encouragement from local government convinced them to try it. Over time, the business community saw the training as a win-win activity, in part because it positively affected the bottom line. Some business leaders donated money to the project. As one factory supervisor said, “The project presents huge benefits for us. It teaches our workers skills needed to protect themselves against abuse and unwanted pregnancy. This will ultimately boost our productivity.”

The training received an enthusiastic response from participants as well, not only because it provided important information, but also because it was fun and interactive. In one session, the trainer handed everyone a piece of paper and asked them to get it signed by someone else. Then the trainer asked the participants to find a new partner and repeat the process until they each had five signatures. The trainer asked, “Assuming that each signature means having sex, what are some of the consequences?” After some discussion, the trainer asked those with an X on their papers to raise their hands: an X means the person has HIV. “How many think you had sex with this person?” asked the trainer. Only five people raised their hand. Then the trainer asked, “Now will the people who had sex with these five people please raise their hand?” Among other lessons, the exercise highlighted that HIV can be transmitted through sex and that you cannot tell by appearance who has the disease.

A model for changing fate

By the project's end it had become a model of success. PATH and the China Family Planning Association piloted the training in 12 major cities and 2 rural counties, and it expanded to more than 200 additional counties with funding from the Chinese government and the UNFPA. Youth programming became an integral component of the Family Planning Association’s five-year strategic plan.

Most important, the project had an impact on thousands of youth, many of whom had never set life goals and did not have the information they needed to protect themselves. As Yangzong, the young Tibetan peer educator, put it, “The practical knowledge and skills in the project may not only change the fate of a person, but also the fate of a nation.”