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Counseling youth amidst COVID-19

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“The most satisfying part of my job is interacting with young people and helping them overcome the challenges they face during puberty. It makes me feel so proud of myself!”, says Mira*.

Mira is a counselor for ‘Alapon’, a helpline supported by UNFPA and the Ministry of Education, which provides young people around Bangladesh psychosocial support and information on sexual and reproductive health and other issues relevant to adolescents. The helpline is available 7 days a week, 12 hours a day and can be called by youth and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 24, as well as their parents.

Providing such a remote counseling service is crucial due to many young people in the country lacking access to mental health and psychosocial support services in their communities. The tabooed nature of issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights can often also make youth and adolescents wary of seeking the services available to them. The anonymity ensured by ‘Alapon’ can give young people the courage to bring up subjects they would otherwise not be comfortable discussing.

“In my experience, most calls to the Alapon Helpline involve queries relating to their sexual and reproductive health. For example wet dreams, menstruation and masturbation are common topics that the young people ask about during the calls,” says Mira who has been working as a counselor for one year now.

In 2020, a total of 17,196 young people called the ‘Alapon’ helpline, with 65% of the calls coming from adolescents between the ages of 15-19. According to Mira, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the type of calls she received with young people struggling with isolation from friends, remote schooling and strained relationships at home. “Many young people were also concerned about their hygiene and symptoms they were experiencing,” Mira adds.

While majority of the calls to the helpline were from boys, the number of female callers dramatically increased in August as flashcards with information on the ‘Alapon’ helpline were included in Menstrual Hygiene Management kits that were distributed to adolescent girls affected by Cyclone Amphan. The initiative was a great success with 14% of all callers throughout the year stating that they had learnt about the helpline from the Menstrual Hygiene Management kits.

“I will not be afraid to face any difficulties now. Alapon apa from the Alapon helpline will be there to give me the right advice,” exclaimed Noor*, one of the recipients of the menstrual hygiene kit in Barguna District. “I hope Alapon will help to reduce social stigma for menstrual and mental health issues in our community. Because of Alapon, we may also be able to prevent child marriages,” stated Sadia, another recipient of the kit in Satkhira District.

In 2020, the helpline was also expanded to cover the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. A separate number was established, which the Rohingya community can call to receive psychosocial support in their dialect. By November, it had received a total of 1,104 calls.

UNFPA also established a partnership with a2i of the Bangladesh government by beginning to host weekly Facebook live sessions, where the Alapon counselors informed viewers on issues relevant to adolescents. Anybody can join the sessions free of charge and submit their questions to the counselors.

In 2021, the project plans on launching an interactive digital platform, which will further improve young people’s access to psychosocial support and crucial information for their well-being.

*The name of the counselor has been changed to protect her identity