tewa women united A'GIN project Healthy Sexuality and Body Sovereignty: Part THREE of THREE

"I respect my body. I am able to make positive choices for my body."
"I am worth it."
"Don't be silly, wrap your willy."

Over the past five years, more than 300 young men and women of Native American heritage have participated in an innovative program designed and delivered by Tewa Women United. In this series of three presentations, we at i2i Institute -- evaluators since the program's outset in 2011 -- share a retrospective view of program progress and outcomes with TWU and their community supporters.


A'Gin Healthy Sexuality and Body Sovereignty Project honors the strength and wisdom of young people. It offers accurate information, mentoring, and leadership opportunities to support them through the challenges of adolescence.

As a community, we want our young people to be able to make conscious, empowered choices about their sexuality and parenthood. There are obvious challenges associated with unplanned pregnancy, and significant health risks that accompany unprotected sex -- but young people in the region rarely receive comprehensive, balanced education to guide them in making informed decisions around these issues.

The reasons for this are manifold. The media and other forces drive unrealistic and conflicting expectations. Local providers of services to youth acknowledge that there is limited inter-agency communication, resulting in a haphazard delivery system for reproductive health care and information. Beyond this, many parents have experienced sexual trauma and relationship violence, and may feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their children.

"The curriculum opened [communication] a little bit more for me," a parent said. She mentioned her fear regarding the prevalence of sexual violence, and the challenge of discussing this with her daughter.

The threat of physical and sexual violence is profound. A 2016 Department of Justice survey of over 2,000 women found that 84 percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence and 56 percent have experienced sexual violence. In over 90 percent of the cases, the perpetrators of the violence are not Native American. These offenders are rarely prosecuted. Other reports reveal that Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be raped than women of any other ethnicity.

Local voices confirm what the national data declare. With A'Gin Project, TWU recognized at the start that addressing body sovereignty -- "the right and responsibility to have complete and unfettered control of [your] own body" -- was an essential part of educating young people about healthy sexuality.

Upon program entry, only three in ten young people surveyed had a response to the question, "What do healthy sexuality and body sovereignty mean to you?" Leaving the program, the responses were thoughtful and diverse. While a few students still answered "I don't know," most identified the elements of the program that had made the biggest impression on them: the need for respect for oneself and one's partner, the importance of safe sex, and greater awareness of choices, actions, and consequences.

Program-inspired changes extend to students' sexual intentions, as well. In deference to their age, the entry survey for students in middle school omitted questions regarding their sexual experience. Among the high school students surveyed, though, 30% (of n=116) answered "yes" to the question, "Have you ever had sexual intercourse? (By sexual intercourse, we mean the act that makes babies.)" Cross-tabulating responses on the exit survey revealed that several students who were sexually experienced felt themselves, post-program, "somewhat less likely" or "much less likely" to have sex in the next six months.

Of ALL students responding to the exit survey question (n=227), 67% found themselves, post-program, to be MUCH LESS LIKELY to have sex in the next 6 months.

Conversely, some students who had entered the program anxious about adolescence and sexuality found that the information provided relieved some of the stress and confusion that surrounded the topic for them. Post-program, they felt better equipped to understand the changes they were experiencing and to seek guidance from trusted adults.

"I thought it was awkward but it seems natural and a comfortable thing to talk about."

From the start, TWU staff were careful to avoid stigmatizing young parents or youth who choose to have sex. The creation of life and the birth of a child are sacred events Tewa people cherish and celebrate as beautiful and essential elements of wowatsi, the circle of life. Many of the participating youth are themselves children of teen parents, and the program honors and acknowledges each individual life path.

Young Women United participated during the planning period, engaging youth, facilitating focus groups, and advising with respect to LGBTQ issues.

The program focused instead on providing medically accurate information about female and male anatomy, adolescent changes and the reproductive process, protecting oneself from sexually transmitted infections, and understanding and accessing contraceptive methods. Facilitators helped students recognize their right (and responsibility) to exercise choice over whether, when, and with whom to have sex, and to make conscious decisions with respect to becoming a parent.

"I thought the funniest thing was [my son] knowing all the lady parts," one mother confessed. Another added, "Mine, too! He was actually drawing them for me."

Fine-grained data resolution and search functions allowed us to query IBIS, New Mexico’s public health database, to learn about births in Rio Arriba County to Native American women aged 10-19. Reliable records are available from 1990 on, and show a wide variance, year to year, in the number of births. (This is more common in smaller populations such as this, where average n=1014.) Despite the variance, the data for 2014 -- following the first year of A'Gin Project implementation in the schools -- show the lowest adolescent birth rate in 25 years.

In 2014 the rate was 8.1 per 1,000, the lowest rate in 25 years and less than half the average rate (19.2 per 1,000) for that time period.

It’s not possible to attribute this change to the A’Gin Project alone. Various other factors may be at play. But other evidence suggests that a change is afoot: that the topic of healthy sexuality and body sovereignty may not be as taboo among Tewa communities as it has been, and that young people may be choosing to consider the benefits and pitfalls of the behavior before they take action.

A'Gin Project provides young people multiple opportunities to develop leadership skills.

Training and engaging youth facilitators has been a prominent part of A’Gin Project programming, as well. Thirty-five young women and men, representing various pueblos, schools, and ages, learned to facilitate the curriculum while developing leadership skills and acquiring important life lessons.

All youth facilitators served as volunteers in an impressive service learning component. These opportunities offered youth facilitators valuable experience helping others; at the same time, they acquired new skills and gained a profound sense of accomplishment. Several students prepared for weeks to lead A’Gin lessons for peers and adults at the Organizing Youth Engagement Conference in Albuquerque. Others spoke before the state legislature, advocating to end violence against Native American women. Still others participated in One Billion Rising and other events to raise awareness and create change.

Originally, program staff intended to employ youth facilitators alongside adults leading that role. At Walatowa Charter High School and at the community-based summer cohorts, this proved an outstanding success. "As a teacher, I wanted to pass that exact same experience on to them [as I’d had in training]—to help, guide, give insight to making the best decision,” one youth facilitator reported. Another added, “The freshmen connected to us better. It was really cool, on a closer level than a teacher would be." In most school settings, though, transportation and scheduling issues prohibited older youth facilitators from serving as a model for younger students this year. Still, the presence and behavior among peers of those who'd been trained in the program set the tone of A’Gin as a way to live and a set of values to adhere to.

Part of what made the program special for students was the emphasis on fun, interactive activities. Although much of the course material addressed the trauma—personal and historical—these young people have experienced, the embedded activities gave students a way to build trust and learn important relationship skills while having a good time together. Teachers who hosted A'Gin in their classrooms rated the program highly, often inviting the team back for multiple rounds. "“The best was the beginning: the vision, the meaning of A'Gin. [The students'] words went into the circle and they felt respected. It was awesome,” said one teacher.

“A’Gin, that’s straight-up respect. A’Gin is a strong word! It governs every single thing that we do as Pueblo people.” -- Host school classroom teacher

Regardless of whether those involved are middle or high school students, parents following elements of the curriculum in learning out-sessions, community members attending a youth-facilitated lesson, or TWU interns learning the ropes, any encounter with the A'Gin program is likely to combine laughter, solid information, heartfelt concern, and a way through to a positive future.

To learn more about Tewa Women United's A'Gin Project, please explore these companion reports by clicking the buttons below.

The mission of Tewa Women United is to provide safe spaces for indigenous women to uncover the power, strength and skills they possess to become positive forces for social change in their families and communities. Learn more about TWU by visiting their website, below, or contact them at info@tewawomenunited.org.
Created By
i2i Institute

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.