|© UNICEF video|
|Junior and his friends in the streets of their neighbourhood.|
By Thierry Delvigne-Jean
DOUALA, Cameroon, 16 June 2005 - City streets and back alleys have become a battleground in the fight against AIDS in Cameroon. In a country where more than half the population is under the age of 25, young people are up against a deadly opponent. The HIV prevalence rate among people aged 15-49 years in Cameroon is 6.9 per cent, one of the highest in the region.
So when Junior heard about a UNICEF-supported AIDS prevention project led by young people, he decided to join in. He mobilized his friends, and they took the fight to the streets.
“We know where the problems are,” says Junior as he points to an abandoned house whose front door is wide open to the street. “Boys and girls often go there to meet late at night…” he continues with a grin.
Junior is leading his group of friends through the streets of their neighbourhood on the outskirts of Douala. They are on the lookout for locations where risky behaviour can take place, contributing to the spread of HIV in their community. Their tough appearance –muscle shirts, low-hanging jeans – contrasts with their friendly smiles and genial faces.
The group stops in front of three dilapidated cars, and Junior makes a note of their location. “These old cars represent a risk because young people use them as shelter to have sex,” he explains.
|© UNICEF video|
|Abandoned cars are used as shelters to have sex, risking exposure to HIV.|
When the neighbourhood walk is complete, the group marks the risky areas on maps. The risk and vulnerability mapping exercise is at the core of the project. It allows young people to map the locations where youth are most likely to be exposed to HIV in their communities and helps them identify the community resources available.
“We have identified 32 bars in our area,” says Junior, pointing to red dots on a big map taped to the wall. “Teenage boys go there to show that they can act like grownups. They drink beer and hook up with girls.”
By mapping the risk factors in their environment, young people begin to understand that their physical and social environment can lead to risky behaviours.
But the mapping exercise is only the starting point. Based on their findings, Junior and his team-mates meet regularly to discuss prevention strategies and identify the types of positive behaviours they would like to promote among their peers in the neighbourhood.
As a supervisor of peer educators, Junior is responsible for mobilizing 30 young people in his area. The 30 peer educators he recruits are divided into groups of 10, and a leader within each group is responsible for organizing awareness-raising and educational activities in the neighbourhood.
“They come because they know me,” explains Junior. “If you just approach some young person, he might say, ‘Yes, I'll come,’ but he won't show up. But your friends will come. And if they decide to leave, you can ask them to bring a friend. That's how the group gets bigger.”
|© UNICEF video|
|By mapping the risk factors in their environment, young people begin to understand that their physical and social environment can lead to risky behaviour, which may result in HIV exposure.|
Junior and hundreds of other young leaders work as peer educators in community youth centres, which provide information, education and counselling. The centres are located in high-risk areas throughout the country.
Each youth centre is a place where young people receive basic training in risk mapping, behaviour analysis, programme planning and counselling. The centres are also meeting places for hundreds of peer educators, who attend regularly to share their experiences and get support from senior peer educators.
“We realized that when we let young people express themselves and make their voices heard, their motivation increases,” says Jeanne d'Arc Kengne, the coordinator of a youth centre in the city of Douala. “Young people can make decisions on problems that affect them and discuss and find their own solutions. We're only here to help them solve problems.”
Kengne is a member of the centre's management team, which includes six adult mentors and six young people. She helps ensure the smooth operation of the centre and supervises the training of peer educators.
“The project is designed to help young people analyse their local situations, but also to engage the participation of hard-to-reach young people in the process,” she says. “The risk mapping and behaviour analysis activities enable young participants to develop a range of skills they will need later in life – life skills, leadership skills and a sense of pride.”
Since the start of the project in 2000, 29 youth centres have been established in six provinces, and 20,000 peer educators have been trained across the country. UNICEF, in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ministry of Education, hope to scale up the project across the country when funding becomes available.
Moreover, the lessons learned can be applied in other countries. “We can replicate this experience in every country because young people are the same every where,” says UNICEF HIV/AIDS Officer Nsambuka Badibanga “When they are given the opportunity to express themselves and take the lead, young people can accomplish great things.”
The success of the project is proof that, with the right skills and knowledge, young people can have a positive influence on their peers.