Blue skies greet the participants of the KEEP ME SAFE workshop as they arrive at the Cyprus Family Planning Association (CFPA) training facility in Nicosia. A five-day long training session is about to begin. The participants include teachers, psychologists and other education professionals. They glance curiously at flip charts spread around the classroom. The programme for the day includes talks regarding the human body, sexual organs, and setting boundaries. What makes these training sessions special is that the professionals work directly with young people who have a learning disability such as Down’s syndrome. These professionals know that young people with learning disabilities (YPWLD) are just like all other young people – interested in how their own and other people’s bodies work, eager to experience love and curious to learn more about sexuality. But how to talk about sex, safety and privacy with these youngsters does not always come easily.
“How do I tell my two students, who say they are a couple, that they shouldn’t touch each other inappropriately in class?” – Teacher working with YPWLD
Working with – or being the parent of – a young person who has a learning disability is not just about delivering information to someone who experiences difficulties in communication and learning. It's also about facing your own preconceptions and feelings of unease. Many parents and educators already feel uncomfortable when talking about sex and sexuality to youth. This is compounded when a young person has a learning disability. Young people with learning disabilities are rarely considered to be just like everyone else their age with desires and needs for intimacy, affection and love. If no one talks to them openly about sexuality, boundaries and responsibilities in a positive way, inappropriate sexual behaviour will be just one of the concerns. These young people also face a serious risk of violence and abuse. It is therefore essential that carers, such as parents, teachers and social workers, acknowledge that these youngsters have the right to enjoy affection and sexuality while learning the skills to stay safe. In addition, the carers need to know how to provide guidance on protection, contraception and appropriate behaviour. These steps are crucial if we wish to empower young people to protect themselves against sexual abuse and violence.
The major taboo around sex, combined with the lack of information on sexuality, makes young people and especially YPWLD vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse. This is painfully true in Cyprus, the location of the February KEEP ME SAFE training session, where sexual and reproductive health topics were recenty included in the health education program, but further trainings and monitoring is still needed to guarantee effective implementation. As a participant of the training session says, “The situation in Cyprus is the same as it was in the Netherlands 50 years ago. Sex is not an easy topic here.” It is clear that there is an enormous need for training, education and information, not only in Cyprus but worldwide. A UN Study from 2006 revealed that 90% of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities will experience some form of sexual abuse during their lifetime.
This is exactly why two experienced trainers from the Dutch IPPF EN Member Association and their partner from Germany have come to Cyprus. As Annelies Kuyper, trainer from Rutgers WPF, the Dutch IPPF EN member, states, “Just organizing a training session on YPWLD and sexuality in a country where sex in general is not the easiest topic was an exciting opportunity. Despite the initial challenges, we succeeded in 'going a little beyond the taboo' and managed to create an open atmosphere to discuss the topic. I believe our participants felt quite comfortable asking questions about a topic that they usually don’t talk about at all.”
During the project, trainers build an intercultural network for teaching and learning more about YPWLD and sexuality. Coming from experienced Member Associations, they are excited to share their longstanding expertise with the Cypriot professionals. Through the years, they have seen the positive impact these trainings can have on professionals who work with youth. Professionals and carers or parents, who previously have shied away from discussing sexuality regarding young people with learning disabilities, now feel much more comfortable to discuss these issues.
And the reactions among those who participated in the training sessions in Nicosia have been extremely positive. “Thanks for a great training! It was really motivating and inspiring. Thank you for giving us this amazing opportunity.” Through this intercultural model of learning the Cypriot group of professionals will be able to educate, support and empower young people with learning disabilities, using methods they know will work in Cyprus. These training sessions also directly strengthen the IPPF framework of sexual rights. The educated and motivated participants are now well equipped to pass along the message that young people with learning disabilities have a right to affection, intimacy, privacy, safety and sexuality – and that the needs of these young people cannot be ignored anymore.
To read more inspiring stories on how IPPF Member Associations work with YPWLD follow the Keep me Safe website.