Stand Strong with Youth on World AIDS Day

world AIDS dayThis is a guest post for World AIDS Day by Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Sarah Onyango, Regional Director for Africa and Dr. Linda Valencia, Guatemala Program Manager.

Just outside the sprawling city of Nairobi, Kenya, sits Kibera, one of the largest urban slums in Africa.  In Kibera, most families live in shacks with dirt floors and tin roofs, nearly all without electricity, running water or toilets.  Lack of access to basic sanitation and health care means that growing up in Kibera puts young people at increased risk of disease and infection.  HIV prevalence may be falling around the world, but the epidemic still rages in the slums and, according to the latest UNAIDS estimates, young people continue to account for half of new infections.

In Kibera, talking comfortably about taboo topics like sex, condoms, and HIV takes training and practice.  Boniface, now 25, recalls feeling shy on his first day as a peer educator, a line of volunteer work he took up as part of a group supported by Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA):

“My first time I introduced condoms to my peers was challenging because I was not confident enough.  The approach was difficult and I made statements like ‘utachukua hizi CDs ama,’ which in Swahili means ‘will you take these condoms or what?!’”

Boniface’s approach grew less abrupt as he gained experience.  Next, he faced the challenge of myth busting.  In talking to other youth about using condoms to prevent HIV, Boniface discovered that his peers believed condoms distributed by the ministry of health were less effective than those sold in the local market because they were free.  Busting this myth, he found, improved his peers’ attitudes toward condoms.  “At the end of the discussion,” he said, “I was surprised that all the young people in the group requested condoms to take home.”

In the Kibera slum, PPFA provides financial and technical assistance to the youth leaders of Carolina for Kibera, who organize soccer and other sports clubs to engage their peers, put on health education workshops, and go door to door throughout the slum to distribute condoms, along with information about HIV and pregnancy prevention.

A continent away, in northern Guatemala, Elmer, age 21, coordinates Sexo Tips, a wildly popular call-in radio program run by PPFA’s partners Tan Ux’il.  Like Carolina for Kibera, Tan Ux’il trains peer educators to distribute information and contraceptive supplies like condoms and birth control pills.  And like their counterparts in Kenya, the youth leaders of Tan Ux’il live in a community largely cut off from modern resources.  Consequently, in the indigenous and rural Petén region where they live, teen pregnancy rates and risk of HIV are higher than many other parts of the country.

To extend the reach of their peer education programs, Tan Ux’il started Sexo Tips.  The radio show airs early on Friday evenings so that young people can listen as they get ready to go out for the weekend.  DJ’s like Elmer, and other young people he has trained, play popular music, discuss various health-related themes and take calls from young people to answer their questions about sex, relationships, HIV/AIDS, and pregnancy prevention live on the air.

In addition to programs in Kenya and Guatemala, PPFA and its partners coordinate youth peer educators in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ecuador, Peru, and Nicaragua.  Collectively, the 1,000 youth we have trained reach over 120,000 young people with information and services in parts of the world where sex education is limited to nonexistent and where the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS is greatest.

We go to great lengths to provide these skills because in far too many parts of the world, including parts of the United States, there are people who would rather put young people at risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases than provide them with the education they need to prevent them.

On World AIDS Day and every day, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its international partners are fighting to change this reality by supporting youth leaders around the world to lead the way for their peers.

Today, local Planned Parenthood affiliates in 34 states and Washington, DC, are organizing over 110 student events on high school and college campuses and will distribute a new fact sheet on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, published today by Planned Parenthood Federation of America.  The fact sheet, available for download here, underscores the need for sex education as a central pillar of HIV prevention efforts and highlights the work of PPFA’s international program.

The youth leaders of Tan Ux’il have a slogan they use when advocating for better sex education in Guatemala:  “Don’t lie to us!”  On World AIDS Day, 2010, we urge you to support young people’s access to the accurate information and quality health services they need to become the healthiest generation this world has ever known.

Picture by Mark Tuschman

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