|© UNICEF video|
|‘Zarrina’ (right) speaks with youth health outreach worker Zuhal Rahmoni in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as part of a programme to educate young people about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.|
By Steve Nettleton
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, 1 October 2008 – Zarrina (not her real name), 18, has been working as a prostitute for two years. She calls her work "a dirty job" but says she has no other means of making a living. She dreams of getting an education.
"I want to be a proper human being, to get into high school, get a job and help my parents," says Zarrina. "I don’t want to spend all my life in this work that I am currently doing.
"I wish to have a job that deserves to be called my job," she continues. "My dream is to be a doctor or somebody like that, and help children get information and services."
Zarrina has taken a step towards her goal. She volunteers for a new outreach programme to teach her friends and peers about how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
"I tell other girls they should stay away from prostitution. It is something you will regret," she says. "There are so many risks, such as syphilis, HIV and AIDS that can affect your health and ultimately your life.
"For those already involved in prostitution, I tell them, 'If you sense any type of illness, please visit the doctor. A timely visit to the doctor can save your life.'"
|© UNICEF video|
|A health worker (left) counsels a young person as part of the UNICEF-supported project youth-friendly health services project in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.|
Help for the vulnerable
Zarrina is involved in a UNICEF-supported, youth-friendly health services project targeting young sex workers, intravenous drug users and others vulnerable to the spread of HIV and AIDS, among other problems.
The project aims to ensure that the most at-risk young people regularly visit special clinics, where they can receive treatment and counselling. The clinics also offer confidential testing for HIV and other diseases.
In Tajikistan, injecting drug users account for more than half of all cases of HIV. Commercial sex workers are also at high risk, and many are still very young. About one in every five prostitutes is under the age of 18.
Reducing risky behaviours
Organizers of the youth-friendly programme hope it will help reduce risky behaviour among adolescents and lower the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. Besides using volunteer peer counsellors, the project takes its message to the streets through outreach workers such as Zuhal Rahmoni.
Ms. Rahmoni befriended Zarrina and showed her where to get medical care and information. She meets regularly with sex workers to give them encouragement and advice.
"My wish for them is that they will find their way, that this will merely be a hard experience that they will remember as a bad dream. Let it be a lesson learned," says Ms. Rahmoni. "I want them to get an education and then educate their own children in a healthy way, in a society free of stigma and discrimination. Because it is mainly a lack of education that brought them down this path."
Encouragement like that not only keeps girls like Zarrina HIV-free but also gives them hope for a better future.