Theory of Change for Sexuality Education in Latin America

Professor Elvia Vargas Trujillo, the Mexican organization Democracia y Sexualidad (Demysex), and other experts from Mexico, Uruguay, the United States, and Colombia recently released the first-ever Theory of Change for Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Theory of Change” is a tool used to design, implement, monitor, and evaluate programs, depicting the pathways of change needed to achieve results in the short, medium, and long term. IWHC spoke with Professor Elvia about her experience.

A Q&A with Elvia Vargas Trujillo

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Why do you think a Theory of Change is important for sexuality education?

It serves as a roadmap to help you get where you want to go and track progress. With comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in particular, there are various challenges to demonstrating effectiveness and impact on social behavior and health. At a convening organized by IWHC and New Delhi-based CREA a few years ago, one of the recommendations that emerged to offset this was to develop a Theory of Change. However, much to my surprise, many of the Latin American participants at the convening were unfamiliar with this concept. Others who were familiar with it and had worked with it in the past, considered it to be a rigid and mechanical tool that was not particularly beneficial. But based on my experience as a professor of program design and evaluation at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia and as a consultant who actively uses the Theory of Change in my work, I knew that the tool could be very useful. It would help to graphically represent the series of changes that are needed to improve the health and lives of adolescents.

Using a Theory of Change helps stakeholders establish a common understanding of the various elements of CSE, visualize how these elements contribute to its overall effectiveness, and define indicators to measure progress. Importantly, the tool helps to define and set desired results. In the short term, this may include governments allocating more resources for CSE, and in the medium term, this may be schools creating a friendly and safe environment, free of discrimination and violence. In the long term, desired results include adolescents recognizing, respecting, and exercising their sexual and reproductive rights and actively participating in CSE activities at school, home, and in the community.

How did you go about developing it?

To get the process going, I organized a three-day regional workshop in June 2016 in Mexico City, with IWHC’s support. The Mexican organization Democracia y Sexualidad (Demysex) was also actively involved, contributing expertise gained from their work with local organizations in the region as well as with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Ultimately, we were able to successfully convene 48 representatives from government, civil society, and UNFPA offices from 12 countries in the region.

The Theory of Change was created by building on the experience of each participant. It reflects initiatives that are currently implemented in Latin America, as well as pending activities that both theory and evidence show must be implemented for CSE to be successful.

The Theory of Change that we developed synthesizes participants’ ideas, experiences, and expectations. It defines CSE and targeted impact and results, including expected changes in people’s lives and the steps to accomplish these changes. It also illustrates the necessary resources and conditions to achieve the goals. Incorporating feedback from experts throughout the region and the United States, the resulting Theory of Change is the product of a very interesting, enriching, and collaborative process.

First, the process allowed participants from different sectors and countries to share their findings and data on adolescents and young people and how CSE programs can improve their lives. Second, participants were able to discuss existing assumptions about how certain activities may or may not lead to the desired results. Third, the workshop’s dynamic allowed participants to come to agreement regarding the commonalities of CSE programs across the region, as well as the differences. Finally, creating the Theory of Change helped participants better understand expectations for these types of initiatives, as well as set realistic and achievable goals.

How will the Theory of Change help Latin American countries implement effective programs?

Those of us involved feel strongly that this is a tool that can be used to strengthen CSE across Latin America. With this in mind, the Theory of Change can be used to:

  1. encourage self-assessment and help evaluate current initiatives;
  2. help create local Theories of Change specific to local contexts, promote the exchange of experiences, and foster reflection among those interested in CSE;
  3. assist monitoring and evaluation efforts by identifying indicators that measure progress in different areas; and
  4. advocate with policymakers to show how CSE helps achieve results that go beyond sexual and reproductive health.

As we put this theory into action, we will continue to share our experiences and learning.

Elvia Vargas Trujillo

Elvia Vargas Trujillo

Elvia Vargas Trujillo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, where she is the Director of the Family and Sexuality research group. She has more than 30 years of experience in research, teaching, interventions, and field evaluation, with a focus on sexual development and sexuality and comprehensive sexuality education (CSE).

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