June 17, 2014
James Helmsworth
Photo credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

This summer marks the conclusion of Professor of Psychology Nancy Darling's work with Prepare, an HIV prevention group funded by the European Union, of whose advisory board Darling was a member. Initiated in 2010, Prepare sought to educate youths in sub-Saharan Africa in healthy sexual practices.

Darling says that she was invited to join Prepare due to her rigorous study of adolescents. For the past 30 years, she has studied the ways in which teenagers interact with their parents and each other, not only in the United States, but in Chile, Italy, and the Philippines, as well. In addition to research published in scholarly journals, Darling runs a blog with Psychology Today about the subject and has been quoted inNew York Magazine. "They know about public health," she says of Prepare, "but I know about teenagers."

Coordinated by Dr. Leif Aaro of Norway's University of Bergen, Darling was part of a group that included researchers from across the world. Darling worked with researchers at Prepare's headquarters in Norway, as well as in sites in Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa, to organize surveys for parents to assess their knowledge of their children's sexual activity.

As someone who has done a great deal of work internationally, Darling knows that adjusting to one's surroundings is of critical importance when trying to gather information in another region, much less make an impact there. "The context became really important," she explains. "The way that we think of romantic relationships or sexuality in the United States or in Northern Europe was quite different than the context of sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa."

While adjusting to this context, the advisory team quickly realized that, in addition to HIV information, youths in Africa were badly in need of information about relationship violence.

The Prepare researchers used the information from Darling's surveys, as well as the advisory board's input, to implement two particular programs at the sites in Africa. At the organization's site in Capetown, South Africa, teenage girls reported high rates of sexual assault. In order to help combat this, the Prepare team provided them with cameras to document all the places in which they felt unsafe. "It was a very empowering thing for the girls," says Darling, "and it also increased the parents' knowledge of the kinds of things that were happening in their kids lives."

In Uganda, Prepare incorporated information about sexual health into English lessons, which are mandatory in schools there. Darling says that this endeavor was tremendously successful. Not only did it inform students, but it also gave them a way to talk to their parents about sex, which researchers found rarely happened at the site.

Darling says that she enjoyed seeing her work in action, not just because she usually works in the theoretical realm, but because it confirmed that much of what she's learned studying teenager/parent relationships is universal across cultures. "I think that was important," she says, "because we tend to think of them as 'other.'"

Unlike many international projects, in which participants from North America and Western Europe can sometimes dominate, Darling says that there was real cooperation between all members of Prepare. "A lot of time we talk about these North-South collaborations and some of them are just Northern researchers going to developing countries and imposing things, which is the worse type," she explains. "Some of the time it's a true North-South collaboration. I think that is what Prepare is."

Though Darling's insights were instrumental to the program, she is quick to praise the African researchers running the project. "They did all the hard work. I'm just on the advisory board."

Prepare is applying for more funding from the EU to implement similar programs in eastern Europe, with the effort to be led by the African teams. Darling says she would love to continue working with the organization.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Jue-Wong

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