Female Pathways helps mothers, daughters start difficult conversations

Sexual & Reproductive Health, Youth Development

Article by Stacy Thacker. Originally published in the Navajo Times 

When Cornelia Chee went through puberty she looked to her dad and brothers for help.

"My mothers was always working, she never had time to be at home, but for her, I want to be there, " Chee said about her daughter. " I want to help her along the way."

Chee and her daugther, Cheyanne Yazzie, are participating in Asdzaan Be'eena', or the Female Pathways Program in Tsaile. The program teaches girls between the ages of 8 to 11 about puberty, personal hygiene, as well as the purpose and practices behind a Kinaaldá, the coming of age ceremony for young Navajo women. 

The program is offered in Tsaile and Tuba City as part of a research study through the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. The program started in August of 2018 and has three cohorts. The third cohort will be starting soon.

The curriculum for the program is based on focus groups and community feedback. The program is designed to be a step toward rebuilding cultural relationships and takes place over three months.

Chee and her daugther started the program in April and it has helped Chee answer her 9-year-old's questions about her changing body.

"I want her to understand what she's going through," Chee said.

Participating in the program with her mom has been fun for Yazzie. She finds the program interesting and enjoys learning about puberty with girls her age because she's more comfortable asking questions. 

Being in the program with her daughter has been rewarding for Chee and she encourages other mothers to participate.

"If it's your first child or your last child, just experience it, support your daugther," she said.

Jaime Begay, program coordinator in Tuba City, said one of the goals of the program is to strengthen the relationship between mom and daughter or whomever the girl sees as her female role model.

"A lot of our lessons deal with communication," Begay said. "We talk about bullying, we talk about peer pressure. A lot of the curriculum is based also on the Kinaaldá teaching, so we talk a lot about resilience. We also have a large focus on reproductive health." 

Begay said they hope the girls pass on what they learn as they grow up and that it creates a domino effect of learning.

While the program is helpful in preparing girls for what's to come, it also helps prepare moms, aunts and grandmothers for difficult conversations.

Sheena Blacksheep and her daughter, Ava Skye, were recommended to the program by a friend.

"I thought this was a good way for her and I to connect more since I don't get to spend as much time with her as I would like too," Blacksheep said.

Blacksheep has two younger sons that keep her bsuy, so getting to spend time learning with her daughter has been important. 

"Some of the classes we go into detail about puberty, menstruation and sexual activity," Blacksheep said. "That's a new conversation for her to hear about because I haven't really gone into that with her yet, so I think it's comfortable for her hearing that stuff for the first time, especially with girls her age."

Blacksheep said her daughter is learning by watching and listening to other girls in her group and gauging their reactions with her own.

"I was thinking about it because she's eight years old and she's getting to that point where I'm going to have to explain things to her and it was kind of difficult for me to find a way to tell her," Blacksheep said.

"It's good for her and it's good for me too because it was sort of like a barrier, like How am I going to approach this with her? But now I'm opening up to it," she said.

She said the class is also teaching her how to educate her sons when they get older about the changes women go through.

"One of the highlights of the program is that it's intergenerational," Marissa Begay said. 

Marissa Begay is the behavioral health coordinator for the program in Tsaile.

They hear feedback from women who wish they had this program when they were younger, she said. Many of them had to figure things out on their own through trial and error and didn't have anybody to talk to them about what to do during their first period.

"You're helping break cycles and you're helping empower these young moms and daughters," she said, adding the power of the program is that they are learning together.

Info: Jaime Begay, in Tuba City, 928-283-8221; and Marissa Begay, in Tsaile, 928-674-3911.

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