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Youth Champion Profile: Maia Freudenberger

Stories and Profiles Adrienne Lee, Assistant Director of Communications

Building Trust in Communities

Maia Freudenberger has made a home for herself in Fianarantsoa, Madagascar, where she intends to stay and cultivate a more adolescent-friendly space. The 24-year-old is the co-founder and executive director of Projet Jeune Leader (PJL), a local organization that is focused on improving the reproductive health and leadership skills of young adolescents. Under Maia’s leadership, PJL is working to increase family planning and reproductive health resources, information, and services for students in three middle schools in rural Madagascar through a PAI-funded YOUAccess project.

Originally from the United States, Maia has lived in Madagascar for the past 14 years. Since October 2013, Projet Jeune Leader has worked in urban public middle schools in around the regional town of Fianarantsoa in Madagascar to provide young adolescents between 10 and 15 years old comprehensive reproductive health information and services. In each partner school, trained youth educators teach a year-long reproductive health and leadership curriculum that covers family planning options, condoms, menstrual cycle, reproductive anatomy, negotiation and refusal skills and other interconnected topics in a fun and creative way.

This YOUAccess project will expand this curriculum to schools in rural areas, which are often marginalized and receive little attention. In October of this year, Projet Jeune Leader collected baseline data with over 400 middle school students in the new rural partner middle schools. The survey found that 63% of 8th and 9th graders thought it unnecessary to use a condom the first time they had sex; 79% believed a girl could get pregnant only on day 14 of her menstrual cycle; 66% thought only the boy could decide when a couple has sex for the first time; 69% think that the pill protects against pregnancy and STIs; and 81% do not know how to use a condom.

The same survey was given to middle school students in urban middle schools in 2013; in comparing the data, it became clear that rural young adolescents are significantly more misinformed on SRH topics than their urban peers. Maia believes that teenagers need stronger decision-making and leadership skills as well as clear, fun, and age-appropriate sexual health information. “If we want to create great leaders for Madagascar, we need to provide the youth with all the sexual health information they need. They should be making their own decisions. That’s better for our country,” she says.

Moving forward, PJL is piloting a reusable sanitary pad project in rural middle schools as part of a larger menstrual health strategy. With support of the Ministry of Education, the organization has also developed a training program for primary school teachers to integrate menstrual health messaging in their work. Project Jeune Leader is also scaling up a program for parents of middle school students, with the goal to encourage stronger and earlier communication between kids and parents on sensitive topics.

Maia hopes that her dedication to PJL’s mission and her willingness to tackle diverse challenges will one day help her organization become the main voice in Madagascar for adolescent programming, sexual health education and leadership development. As PJL continues to grow, she is constantly learning. “My advice to a young project leader is to build the trust of those surrounding you—whether [it’s] other NGOs, staff members, government officials, school officials, parents, religious officials.” She adds, “In the case of Projet Jeune Leader…we built from the beginning a trusting relationship with the school boards, teachers and parents, all of whom have become, in the end, strong advocates for our model.”

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