|© UNICEF Côte d’Ivoire/2007/Vidal-Dubuc|
|Peer educators Hervé Yao and Carole Gnamaka demonstrate how to use a condom during a group discussion on HIV in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.|
By Stephanie Vidal-Dubuc
Here is one in a series of stories on successful initiatives to promote healthy lives, provide quality education, combat HIV and AIDS, and protect children against abuse, exploitation and violence – all part of a special edition of 'Progress for Children', UNICEF’s flagship publication on advances towards the Millennium Development Goals. The report will be launched on 10 December.
ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire, 29 November 2007 – It is a hot Saturday, and a group of young people gathers beneath a tree to avoid the direct heat of the sun. They listen intently as Hervé Yao, 26, and Carole Gnamaka, 17, discuss safe sex practices. The peer educators are there every weekend to explain to neighbourhood youth the dangers of HIV, how the virus is transmitted and ways to protect against it.
There are signs that HIV prevalence is declining in Côte d’Ivoire, according to a 2007 United Nations report. Prevalence among young pregnant women fell from 10 per cent in 2001 to 6.9 per cent in 2005, suggesting that prevention efforts are having an impact.
Key to reversing the spread of AIDS is increasing awareness of the epidemic among young people and encouraging them to adopt safer behaviours. All too often, however, young people, especially the less privileged, do not know how or where to obtain information and services, or simply do not have access to them.
Hearing it from peers
Mr. Yao and Ms. Gnamaka live in Abobo, one of the most deprived areas of Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire. In this densely populated neighbourhood, many young people are out of school and unemployed. Unconnected to any formal organization, they are less likely to receive proper information about health issues, which puts them at greater risk of becoming infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
A few months ago, Edson Djeni, an educator from Lumière Action, a non-governmental organization, started an AIDS peer-education project in Abobo. He approached Mr. Yao and Ms. Gnamaka, who were already involved in a youth organization, about becoming peer educators.
“At the beginning, we had no idea what it meant to be a peer educator, and we knew very little about AIDS,” Mr. Yao recalls. “But now I know much more, and I understand how shared information can save lives.”
Lumière Action’s project uses peer education to inform young people about AIDS. Educators like Mr. Yao and Ms. Gnamaka are trained to organize educational activities for their peers, who are defined as people of the same age, origin and interests.
|© UNICEF Côte d’Ivoire/2007/Vidal-Dubuc|
|Mr. Yao and Ms. Gnamaka with their supervisor, Edson Djeni.|
Education and prevention
The project employs a holistic approach, offering free and voluntary HIV testing, counselling, educational activities and referrals to treatment centres for those who test positive. So far, the project has 300 members, most of them volunteers, who believe education is one of the best ways to prevent HIV and STIs.
Mr. Djeni, who has been a volunteer for four years, started with Lumière Action as a peer educator and now manages the peer education training unit. He first became involved at the request of his older sister, who is HIV-positive.
“Nothing in the world would make me stop now,” he says. “Lumière Action has become like a family to me. But more than anything else, I want to be there for my sister.”
Making a difference
All the volunteers share a commitment and passion to help their community. Although Mr. Yao and Ms. Gnamaka have been working as peer educators for only a short time, they take pride in what they have already been able to accomplish.
“I feel extremely useful being able to help my peers and demystify the issues surrounding AIDS and STIs,” Ms. Gnamaka says. “I am sure that, in the long run, my actions will contribute to saving lives.”
“When I walk on the streets, people recognize me,” says Mr. Yao. “They come to me to ask questions, or sometimes because they want to know where to get condoms. They are now more aware of the risks of transmission, and I am happy to help them protect themselves.”
'Progress for Children: A World Fit For Children Statistical Review'