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A community volunteer breaks taboos in Shenzhen

7 六月 2019
Hu Lan (third to the left) launched China’s first Dance4Life young pioneer band  for promoting youth sexual and reproductive health.
Hu Lan (third to the left) launched China’s first Dance4Life young pioneer band for promoting youth sexual and reproductive health.

Wherever young people gather in China, there is an elephant in the room. It’s too embarrassing for many people to discuss, so they don’t. And so the elephant keeps getting bigger. 

Sexual and reproductive health are big in the minds of young people. The problem is, there is little sexuality education in schools, it’s difficult to talk about with friends and family, and much of the information on the internet is unreliable. Young people are left to find out information on their own, and the information they can access is often incorrect or insufficient.

“I was shocked by the lack of sexual and reproductive health knowledge among young people,” says Hu Lan, who started working in reproductive health promotion and counseling in Shenzhen in 2013. 

Ignorance has a cost, says Hu Lan. When young people make decisions based on poor information, the results can follow them for the rest of their lives—unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, or violence from partners and friends. It’s not just young people who are affected, but also their families and communities.

“I still remember the tears of a mother who came to us, and how helpless she was waiting for her 13-year-old daughter going through an abortion,” recalls Hu Lan. That 13-year-old is far from alone. About half of all abortions are by women and girls under age 24, according to an affiliate of the National Health Commission. There is limited data on related issues like HIV and sexual violence, partly because few people will talk about them.

How to break through the reluctance, and get people talking? A project called Dance4Life brings young people together for music, dance, video, social events, and discussions about sexuality and reproductive health. Hu Lan volunteers about 20 hours a week on the project, of which the concept was brought from the Netherlands to China by UNFPA and the China Family Planning Association in 2015.

“The first event I organized, everyone had such awkward expressions on their faces when two Young Pioneers opened the door and let participants into the room,” says Hu Lan. Many looked around curiously. They were hesitant at first, but a few people stepped onto the floor and began to dance, following the instructions of the lead singer. Before too long, almost everyone had joined in. The dance loosened everyone up. Now they were ready to talk about sexual and reproductive health.

“I was nervous the first few times with each Dance4Life event,” confides May, a midwife working at a hospital. “But then I got more relaxed. Hu Lan gave me a lot of encouragement and lots of  chances to exercise and learn.”

At Dance4Life events, young people talk about the questions they are thinking about: sex, pregnancy, abortion, HIV, parenthood, gender equality, and more.

As one of the most active people in Dance4Life, Hu Lan has facilitated over 300 events nationwide. Fifty of the young people she has reached have become leaders themselves. Shenzhen, in southeast China, is the most active city in China's Dance4Life project, and nearly 5,000 young people in the city have become more confident to make informed decisions on their sexual and reproductive health issues thanks to Dance4Life. 

The project has changed Hu Lan’s life: she has become a Goodwill Ambassador on youth health in Shenzhen and an  international trainer for Dance4Life. The community where she serves has seen a 40% drop in unintended pregnancies and 30% increase in sexuality education enrollment in 2017. Worldwide, the project empowered 2 million young people in 18 countries.

“Sexuality education goes way beyond information about sex. It’s about self-awareness, gender equality, and empowerment of young people. We hope more people can join Hu Lan in promoting the health and development of young people in China,” says Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi, Representative of UNFPA in China. 
 
With the support of UNFPA, the Chinese government and local community, Hu Lan is hopeful that these efforts will make a difference for the next generations. Her eyes fixed out in the distance, she said, “in the future, sexual health will no longer be a taboo. Instead, it will be an ordinary topic for anyone to discuss without fear or shame.”