Launching Comic Books for Change in Togo
Do you remember completing Captain Haddock’s catchphrase while reading The Adventures of Tintin? Or waiting to look up Calvin and Hobbs in the newspaper? Comics have a way of seamlessly touching everyday lives. Beyond the joys of reading, comic books also influence popular norms and culture. As part of a new initiative from Agir pour la Planification Familiale (AgirPF), a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), EngenderHealth and partners are leveraging this creative medium as a means to engage young people in West Africa in sexual and reproductive health.
In Togo, only 36% of unmarried sexually active youth report using contraception, despite being at increased risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection. Young people represent 55% of all cases of sexually transmitted infections annually, and in 2013 an estimated 7,000 pregnancies occurred among school-age girls. Open discussion about sex is largely taboo in Togo, especially among young people, and a comic book was perceived to be a way to facilitate learning by engaging readers in a story inspired by their individual realities as girls and boys. Ultimately, this narrative art is intended to increase youths’ use of sexual and reproductive health services.
“Young people are tomorrow’s leaders. By enabling their sexual and reproductive health, they will be able to better contribute to the development of Togo,” said David Gilmour, Ambassador of the United States of America in Togo, to Le Temps newspaper during a recent event to launch the comic book series.
When youth representatives were asked at the launch what they thought about the comic books, one said, “As young people, we must know how to deal with our sexuality and this [the comic book] would help shape our behavior.” Another young person shared that “it is a good initiative. It allows young people to take care of themselves with respect to their sexuality.”
To design the comic book, the project implemented a youth-driven model to encourage content that effectively addresses the information needs of Togolese youth. The project staff identified and collaborated with a local association of young people to co-create the content, including identifying the key themes; developing the story lines; identifying the primary and secondary characters; and turning the scripts into storyboards. The result will be a three-issue comic book series making explicit linkages between sexual and reproductive health, gender, and rights.
The first story, Assibi et Salifou: La Premiere Fois, which was released in August, marked and celebrated the agency of young people. Six reading clubs will be established, in which Peace Corps volunteers will facilitate discussions to analyze the messages communicated through the comics. The clubs are intended to promote a culture of knowledge sharing and establish a support network for youth as they translate knowledge into practice. Participants will be encouraged to identify social norms and consider sexual and reproductive practices. In addition, each comic book carries coupons that can be traded for free services at the Association Togolaise pour le Bien-Etre Familial (ATBEF) clinics.
To be successful, youth-focused initiatives must offer creative opportunities to engage young people and ensure their involvement at all stages. The project will specifically assess the effectiveness of comic book workshops as a means for engaging young people in an ongoing dialogue, educating young people about sexual and reproductive health, and ultimately encouraging use of health services.
To download the social media toolkit for the comic books, please click here.