In my early twenties I had the privilege to volunteer as a sexual health coordinator for a teen group called Y.E.A.H. North (Youth Educating About Health North). This experience taught me a lot about sex, as well as the delivery of sex education in my northern community of Iqaluit. As time passed and I gained more experience in government policy, I began to wonder why independently run programs like Y.E.A.H. North and government funded health initiatives were seemingly ineffective in the prevention of teenage pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. I had always known that the numbers in Nunavut were bleak, but when I decided to actually look them up the percentages really surprised me. “Almost one-third (31%) of the reported infections [of chlamydia] in 2012 were in the 15-19 age group…. Most (64%) of the reported infections [of gonorrhea] in 2012 were in the 15-24 age group.” (1-2, www.irespectmyself.ca)
Recently, I thought back to my time with Y.E.A.H. North and remembered how keen and intelligent the students I'd worked with had been. It didn’t mesh with the stats; knowing all the valuable information that was being passed around in high schools and how dedicated my Y.E.A.H. North kids were with spreading the word, I couldn’t understand the numbers. Why were there so many STIs being passed around within generation of young people so inundated with sexual health propaganda?
The turning point for me came when I took some of my family to a restaurant one evening. I am the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side, so I was amused and a bit concerned when I noticed my 14 year old cousin’s first hickey at dinner. I asked him to walk across the street with me to buy some smokes, and as we walked I broached the subject of safe sex. He blushed and he giggled, and I chalked it up to him not being ready for the discussion and therefore, not being ready for sex. I gave him the option to talk to me anytime and dropped it.
Years later, I developed a close relationship with another young family member and she confided in me that she was worried her boyfriend was cheating on her. She asked me “what is STI like?” as if “STI” was a single thing. Just one disease caused by sex. It dawned on me that although she was almost twenty, her sexual health knowledge was rudimentary. She had dropped out of middle school when she was 11 and English was her second language. With this in mind, how could she easily access any of the outreach materials geared toward young, sexually active people? My young friend had poor literacy skills, no access to school or peer counsellors, and very little money to even be exposed to the public ads in bars and restaurant bathrooms. What she did have was all the time in the world to hang out with friends and have sex.
I've never subscribed to a catch-all, blame the government/system/schools approach to social problems. Blame is often a counterproductive reaction to complicated issues. This realization about sex education has strengthened my skepticism about easy fixes, but it has also solidified my belief that there needs to be more interpersonal community engagement among Inuit to make real change happen. Now is the time to start being open with our young people, with our relatives, and with our friends. It falls on all of us to collectively change statistics in our communities and to encourage healthy, self-empowered lifestyles.
Napatsi is an Iqaluit-based freelance writer and Senior Policy Analyst for the Government of Nunavut. She has written both fiction and non-fiction for publications such as Matrix Magazine and The Town Crier, and she published her first Young Adult novel "Joy of Apex" in 2012 with Inhabit Media.