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Using youth-led peer research to break the silence on adolescent sexuality in Bulgaria by Rutger van Oudenhoven, Kristen Cheney, and Kristina Nenova

In Bulgarian schools, the topic of sex education is contentious and often even avoided, leading to a lack of proper knowledge and understanding of sexuality among young people. An innovative research project tried to address this gap by training adolescents as peer researchers to gather information on how young Bulgarians perceived their relationships with others in their community. This led to a study revealing that young Bulgarians felt the need for better sexual education and the creation of ‘safe spaces’ where young people can discuss sex, sexuality, and relationships. The youth peer researchers then became advocates who initiated a number of activities to teach themselves and their peers about healthy relationships.


In the last two years, the Bulgarian government has made limited progress in its attempt to implement the Istanbul Convention and its National Strategy for Children 2019-2030. This strategy was developed to improve the support provided to children and families, especially to vulnerable children and women who suffer the effects of domestic violence. However, some conservatives lobbied against the Convention’s implementation based on their interpretation of the concept of ‘gender’ and that Bulgarian NGOs were trying to implement early sexuality education and to promote homosexuality in schools. The Convention’s implementation was thus postponed due to lack of consensus and political power. As a result of such a sensitive situation, new challenges have arisen. It has become more difficult to lobby about sexuality education programs in front of the relevant governmental structures and school representatives.

In response to these challenges, the ‘Adolescents’ Perceptions on Healthy Relationships’ (APHR) project was initiated to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation of adolescents by improving the safety and security of the spaces in which they move and live. Funded by the Oak Foundation, the project focuses on understanding how adolescents in Bulgaria and Tanzania view healthy relationships based on the idea that healthy relationships can prevent sexual abuse and exploitation. APHR utilized participatory processes by training adolescents as peer researchers and advocates. Through those processes, they also developed and disseminated an adolescent-centered Healthy Relationships model for policy-relevant research and advocacy. ISS, in cooperation with partners International Children’s Development Initiatives (ICDI) and Animus Association, trained adolescents in research techniques and solicited their input in developing the research design.

The 40 Bulgarian Youth Peer Researchers (YPRs) aged 14-18 who conducted the research between January 2017 and March 2019 examined various aspects of relationships in different settings, such as in the family, peers/friends, and schools. Through a survey, qualitative interviews, and focus group discussions on topics such as violence, sexuality, and online behaviour, they consulted with 1,200 adolescents aged 11-18, unpacking concepts that adolescents reported as important ingredients for healthy relations—concepts such as trust, respect, equality, and the balancing of dominance. The research definitely reveals a great deal about the world in which young people in Bulgaria navigate and how this affects their relationships. The research showed, for example, that homosexuality, a controversial topic in Bulgaria over the past few years, remains a challenge for youths: only 47% felt comfortable sharing their sexual status with their parents. In addition, 58% of YPRs responded that they think that violence always, often, or sometimes occurs in romantic relationships between teenagers—mostly psychological violence.

A gap in education, a lack of space

“Actually, I’ve read a lot of articles about sex, I took part in a course [not related to the school] dedicated to sexual education. I do not learn anything in my school. I learned a lot from the girls from this group.” Alexander YPR, 17

In Bulgaria, many schools offer no sexual education at all. Teachers are unwilling to talk about sex and when they do, the curriculum tends to focus on ‘biological’ and negative aspects and risks of sexuality, such as early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. YPRs pointed out that although these findings did not surprise them, they found them very problematic. They and their peers now depend on each other and on the Internet to get information on sex and sexuality. The YPRs also commented that the school does not provide any space for learning or exchange when it comes to these topics. Yet they assert that understanding the role of sex is essential to a healthy relationship, as it is to be open and informative about it. Adolescents therefore need safe spaces and opportunities to discuss it. This, they argue, will greatly contribute to establishing and maintaining healthy (intimate) relationships throughout their lifetimes.

Youths driving action to transform sex education

Following these discussions, youth peer researchers have felt increasingly empowered to take action. First of all, the YPRs have taught themselves what there is to know about sexual education. Through literacy and online research, listening to experts and talking to their peers, they have come to understand what information young people need to have when it comes to sex and sexuality. They have not only informed themselves, but have also become peer educators, helping their classmates to become better informed and feel comfortable when talking about this subject.

Moreover, the YPRs can now confidently indicate what is needed to improve sexual education and information for young people. And they haven’t stopped there: To really make changes, they have devised a policy brief with recommendations for schools to improve sexual education. This policy brief now forms the basis of an advocacy campaign, which will include a website, peer-to-peer sexual education classes, a social media campaign, and the creation of events and spaces where young people can discuss matters of sexuality freely and safely.

Recommendations as set out in the APHR policy brief

  • Comprehensive sexuality education should become part of the standard high school curriculum in Bulgaria—not as an afterthought, or in a minimalistic manner, leaving it up to teachers if and how they want to address it, but as a standardized, high quality ‘course’ that deserves the same respect and attention as other subjects.
  • Sexuality and relationships should be discussed in a broader sense in schools. Sex education classes should continue to address the biological aspects of sex (including STDs and preventing unwanted pregnancy). However, the conversation about sexuality and relationships should be expanded and should also include topics like love and romance, sexual pleasure, online pornography, healthy relationships, communication, homosexuality, emotions, dominance and equality, and (preventing) sexual abuse.
  • Young people should be involved in the design and development of the above-mentioned sexual education programmes.Schools should create more space for meaningful child and youth participation, not only to talk about sexuality and relationships, but about other issues that may concern them. Adolescents expressed a desire to discuss and exchange with their peers and with teachers. They want to be heard and to be taken seriously.

The APHR project results reveal the potential of participatory peer research itself for effecting positive change and promoting healthy relationships from an adolescent-centered perspective. The adult researchers in the project are therefore also advocating their Healthy Relationships Model for working with children and youth in research and development practice.

About the authors:

Screenshot_20200202-162113Rutger van Oudenhoven is Senior Programme Manager at International Children’s Development Initiatives in Leiden, Netherlands. He is adviser to the APHR Bulgaria team.

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children & Youth Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and leader of the APHR project.Headshot 02 17

Screenshot_20200202-204000__01Kristina Nenova is an International Projects and Programs expert at Animus Association in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is the lead local researcher for the APHR Bulgaria team.