|© UNICEF/HQ01-0150/Giacomo Pirozzi|
|Adriano Matsinhe (left) talks to peer educators during a HIV/AIDS training session in Maputo, the capital.|
By Alexia Lewnes
ILHA DE MOÇAMBIQUE, Mozambique, 8 February 2006 – When 18-year-old Leandra thought she might be pregnant, she went to the local hospital to see a doctor. Frightened and alone, Leandra hadn’t told anyone her secret. She was ready to tell the truth in front of the doctor.
“I explained the situation to the doctor, but she immediately started criticizing me,” said Leandra. “The doctor got angry with me and told me I was irresponsible and that I shouldn’t be having sexual relations.”
The visit didn’t solve any of Leandra’s problems, but left her traumatized. “I was only in there for a few minutes, and I was too scared to say anything and give her more information about what happened. I left without even getting a pregnancy test,” said the teenager.
Leandra began confiding in her friends, and one of them told her about the Alto Maé Health Centre on Ihla de Moçambique, a small island just off the coast. Leandra agreed to go, but with much reluctance. Despite being told this is a youth-friendly centre, she expected a similar experience.
A different experience at Alto Maé Health Centre
At the Alto Maé Health Centre Leandra met with a young woman close to her own age. They sat down and discussed her situation in private. After a 20-minute consultation Leandra was referred to the nurse.
|© UNICEF/HQ01-0151/Giacomo Pirozzi|
|Using a wooden replica of a penis Adriano Matsinhe (left), shows a group of peer educators the correct way to put on a condom during a training session on HIV/AIDS.|
“The nurse was very nice. She listened to me and wasn’t critical,” said Leandra. The nurse explained to Leandra that she needed to wait to see if she missed her period before having a pregnancy test. “We spoke a lot. I came in so scared, but I was much calmer and less worried when I left,” added Leandra.
The Alto Maé Health Centre provides a variety of health services to young people like Leandra. There health workers educate youngsters on sexual and reproductive health, treat sexually transmitted diseases, and provide both prenatal and antenatal care. Voluntary and confidential testing for HIV and peer counselling are also available.
What sets apart the Alto Maé Health Centre from other health facilities is that all of the services at Alto Maé are provided without judgement. At the same time young people’s privacy and confidentiality are also carefully maintained.
Working with partners, UNICEF supports 40 such facilities that provide youth-friendly health services to the country’s young generation. In 2005 youth educators working in these facilities provided nearly 100,000 counselling sessions to their peers.
Getting young people tested for HIV a major hurdle
Many of the young people who come to Alto Maé have symptoms of sexually transmitted infections. Others want to know how to deal with the problems they have with their boyfriends, while some still question whether they are ready to start sexual relations.
Activists take the opportunity to challenge traditional misconceptions and inform young people about safe sex practices – all done with a language that teens can easily understand and relate to. They also encourage young people to get tested for HIV.
“Some people come in with rashes or spots and are concerned if it’s a symptom of AIDS,” says Jovial, an activist working at the centre. “They have questions about AIDS and want to know what a person with AIDS looks like, but many of them are scared to go for tests.”
In Mozambique HIV infection is still considered as a death sentence for most of the population. There is also widespread discrimination and stigma targeting people infected with HIV. Most young people are afraid to learn their HIV status, and this has been one of the biggest hurdles to contain the epidemic.
As for Leandra, she eventually found out that she was not pregnant. Nurses at Alto Maé informed her about the risks of unprotected sex, and encouraged her to get a test for HIV.
Like many other teens, naturally Leandra was scared. The nurse explained to her that an early diagnosis can help her live a healthier life, and even if the diagnosis is positive, antiretroviral drugs can keep her healthy and live a productive life.
And yet, sometimes fear wins out: nearly a year later, Leandra still hasn’t been tested.
“I’m too scared to know the results,” she says. “I’m afraid because there is no cure. If I found out I was positive, I think the shock would be too much for me. My mother would be so worried. It’s easier this way.”