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HIV/AIDS

A peer education programme

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© UNICEF Namibia
Participants in the "My Future is My Choice" programme.

Interview with Rick Olson, UNICEF Programme Officer in Namibia

Namibia has one of the highest HIV prevalence levels in the world. Among the country’s adult population, at least one person in five is HIV-positive.

In conjunction with the Namibian Government, UNICEF is working to educate the country’s youth through a programme called ‘My Future is My Choice,’ a peer education programme in which groups of young people between the ages of 14 and 24 are educated, then trained to educate others.

The young trainees receive a 20-hour course focusing on reducing teenage pregnancy and preventing HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, sexual abuse and violence. Each young person who completes the course is asked to prepare an ‘action plan’ to reach at least 10 friends. Thus far, UNICEF estimates that Namibia’s youth have reached more than 100,000 of their peers.

Rick Olson worked with partners to counter misinformation about HIV/AIDS. “Some myths are linked to gender, like ‘a boy is only a man once he gets an STI [sexually-transmitted infection],’ or, ‘forcing a girl to have sex is a normal part of a relationship’,” Olson says. “There is confusion about how easy is it to get pregnant, like ‘you won't get pregnant standing up or the first time you have sex.’ Some people still believe traditional healers can cure AIDS.”

Namibia’s Ministry of Basic Education began developing the ‘My Future is My Choice’ programme 1997. In 1998, Olson helped set up a National Steering Committee to bring the Ministries of Youth and Health and the National Youth Council in as partners.

Pitfalls along the way

As Olson soon learned, getting the programme to work was not easy. For example, it was initially envisioned that one teacher and one young person would co-facilitate the seminars. “This did not work for a few reasons,” Olson says. “One was that many of the teachers had problems discussing sexual information and promoting condom use with their students, especially sexually active teenage students. Another reason was that young people were also not at ease discussing their sexual history, substance use, etc. with one of their teachers.”

There were other problems as well. The Ministry of Basic Education insisted that teachers not be given any cash incentives for participating in the programme. The Ministry of Youth, however, insisted that young people be paid 500 Namibian dollars - more than the monthly wages of a shop clerk - for their traning. Many teachers dropped out and many young people participated for the wrong reasons.

Using teachers as co-facilitators soon phased out, though Olson managed, along with partners, to keep teachers involved by establishing a ‘contact teacher’ system to supervise the program and record keeping. UNICEF is also working with government to bring youth payments in line with the national volunteer scheme in which the government pays volunteers up to 250 Namibian dollars per month.

The government now advertises on local radio programmes across the country to recruit youth trainers. Selected young people participate in a 10-day facilitators' training course, where they learn about role playing and mock facilitating. They are ranked by their peers, and are asked to withdraw from the programme if they are not effective teachers.

The results

The youth facilitators place posters in schools and around communities, advertising when and where they will hold their own training sessions. “We have an average completion rate for all 10 sessions of about 85 per cent. About 95 per cent complete eight  to nine sessions. Basic HIV and reproductive health information is covered in sessions two and three to reach those that don't complete the entire training,” Olson says.

Issues around HIV, sexual and other risky behaviour are also addressed using participatory methods such as role playing and group discussions. This helps young people to develop the communication and decision-making skills they need to reduce risky behaviours.

Each young person who completes the course is given a T-shirt and certificate. Last year, the programme went through 24,000 T-shirts and certificates, 28,000 workbooks, notebooks, pens and hundreds of thousands of monitoring forms. And each year, the programme’s reach and numbers are expanding. Some 130,000 young people have signed up for the course since the ‘My Future is My Choice’ programme started.

That’s good news for the country because research has shown that young Namibians who have been reached by the programme delay sexual intercourse longer and, when they became sexually active, more of them use condoms.