Helping Mexican youth to cope

In a haze of brown, metallic-tasting smog, Mexico City stretches endlessly, in all directions. It covers more ground with its cinderblock buildings, makeshift shacks, and grid patterns of slum dwellings than any other city in the world. And its population of 18 million is expected to double by the end of the century. The Mexican government's family planning program of the last decade is viewed as one of the third world's success stories. But observers are still alarmed by Mexico's runaway urbanization, and by the inadequacies of services such as schools to cope with the spiraling numbers of young people. The inner-city youth of Mexico, these observers say, have too few opportunities for education and employment and frequently wind up having children they are ill equipped to care for.

Since 1978, Anamel'i Monroy has been tackling the problems of Mexico City's youth, for whom unemployment rates run as high as 59 percent. She is particularly concerned with helping to stem the tide of population growth.

Warm and eminently feminine, Dr. Monroy looks more like the kind of upper-middle-class socialite you might expect to find sleeping late in the mornings and playing tennis or planning dinner parties in the afternoon.

But this mother of three university students, who has her doctorate in psychology, spends her mornings -- from 7:30 on -- at CORA, the Centro de Orientaci'on para Adolescentes (Center for Adolescent Orientation). She founded CORA eight years ago to provide inner-city youth with social and cultural activities, as well as counseling on sex education and contraception. She spends her afternoons at the offices of Mexico's national family planning program, where she is an assistant program director.

A thousand young people per week attend the guitar classes, handicraft workshops, sports activities, movie club, English classes, or theater groups of CORA, which probably reaches 100,000 adolescents a year. Most of them are from poor areas, where young people often don't know how to spend their free time, and where drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and vagrancy are common problems.

Although the vast majority of Mexicans are Roman Catholics, and the church does not sanction birth control, Monroy says the programs of CORA, like those of most other Mexican family planning agencies, have encountered virtually no resistance from the religious establishment.

In a recent interview, Monroy talked about the problems and pressures her young clients often face, and about some methods CORA has come up with to handle them. One of the major problems in the slums is that of pregnant girls, or girls with babies, abandoned by the fathers of their children. Why does this seem to be so prevalent?

I think the problem has to do with role models. The traditional Mexican idea is that to be a man means to have many pregnant women around, and lots of children. We are teaching that this is wrong.

One thing we are trying to do in our sex education talks is to let the boys and girls know that the sex roles shouldn't be so different. They should have equal rights, equal opportunities, equal responsibilities. I have seen attitudes change. Now they [some of the young people] criticize the traditional roles.

But it's not the boys alone who are to blame. A girl who says, ``He made me get pregnant,'' is not facing her responsibilities, either. We want the girls to know that if they become pregnant it's because they wanted to. They can say no or they can do something to avoid that pregnancy. Does CORA try to discourage any sexual activity at all?

We try to teach the kids to postpone their first sexual relation as long as they can, based on the idea that they should be absolutely sure of what they are doing, well-informed about the possible consequences, and about the contraceptives we make available to them.

Also, we want them to be sure they are respecting themselves and the other person -- that their decision won't go against their personal, family, or religious values. Do you have a problem gaining credibility with the young people and convincing them your advice can really benefit them?

When we give adolescents the opportunity to share ideas, both with our professionals and with their peers, they learn very much. The problem is that usually people try to impose ideas on them, which simply doesn't work. But when you really give kids the opportunity to think, to analyze their decisions and then act on them, they do wonderfully. How have church authorities reacted to your programs?

We've been very careful. When we started we had a church right in front of our center, so that made us even more careful. The first thing we did was to talk to the community leaders in the poor areas of the city. We respect the community, and we really don't face any resistance.

We have multi-service centers where the adolescents from age 12 to 19 can go and spend their free time talking to the professionals or to our promoters. The parents are very glad to have a center with all kinds of activities, so the kids are not out on the streets. And I guess they got used to the idea that the kids were receiving their orientation talks, and they didn't pay much attention to the sex education. Do you expect that work like yours will continue to expand, and that more people will want your services?

That's my goal. My goal is not to grow into more centers, because we don't have the capacity to do that. But my hope is to put some of these ideas inside other institutions so that they can start their own programs. How will you do that?

We are already doing it. In these seven years we have trained more than 6,000 professionals for our workshops, and many of them are starting programs in their institutions, here or outside Mexico City. What do you feel is the single most effective aspect of your work?

We have a theater contest every year for the adolescents. We ask all the kids to make a small survey of the problems in their community and write a short play about them. They have to propose a solution for the problems, act it out and everything. In five years we've had more than 250 written plays, and these are shown in real theaters because we are coordinated with the National Institute of Fine Arts. What are the problems they mention?

Everything. The first year they only mentioned drug addiction, pregnancy, lack of family planning, and some family problems they were facing. Now it's incest, rape, prostitution, unemployment, or very badly paid employment. But if they don't suggest a solution, they can't win the prize. What are some of the solutions they suggest?

It's interesting. At first we didn't ask them to write a solution, and there were deaths in the plays. They committed suicide, or somebody killed their father, or the mother had an accident. Really, it was a problem. They wrote tragedies.

But the second year, when we said they had to propose a solution, they started analyzing the problems. Sometimes they said that it's just the adults' problem. But lately they have also said, well, it's also my fault, because I don't communicate with my parents, because I am trying to solve my problems the wrong way, and it seems that this is working better.

At the beginning everything was destructive. ``Adults are the worst,'' things like that. But then they started realizing that they also can change many things.

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