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Taking the lead: Adolescents of Bangladesh promote HIV/AIDS

By Casey McCarthy

DHAKA, 08 December 2008. The voices of more than 10,000 adolescent boys and girls were heard loud and clear as they marched across Bangladesh last week. Chanting “We are the leaders; we will stop AIDS” and wearing special T-shirts, their message resonated across the country. In one area of Dhaka, the capital city, police closed a major road to give them room for their demonstration, which attracted the curiosity of bystanders.

Leading by example, the adolescents rallied together to promote HIV and AIDS awareness to mark  World AIDS Day, truly embodying the 2008 theme “Lead – Empower – Deliver”.

Although Bangladesh is still considered to be a low prevalence country for HIV-AIDS (with a prevalence rate of less than 1 per cent), prevention efforts are crucial to prevent the epidemic to spread among vulnerable groups, especially young people.  According to the recent Children and AIDS, Third Stocktaking Report 2008 published by four UN agencies, only 16 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 24 have a comprehensive knowledge of HIV. Yet, as in many countries, young Bangladeshis are at risk of HIV. More than 40 per cent of HIV infections globally occur among young people. But young people can also play a critical role in raising awareness and promoting safe behaviour. 

This is one of the objectives of UNICEF's Adolescent Empowerment project, ‘Kichori Abhijan’: to inform adolescents on HIV-AIDS and safe behaviours. Supported by the European Commission, the project encourages adolescents to become actively involved in the prevention drive. Under the project, peer leaders receive life skills training that equips them to tackle issues of HIV-AIDs among others. Adolescents become agents of change by encouraging conversations within communities and breaking some of the taboos surrounding reproductive health.

This year, thousands of adolescents involved in the project, which is implemented in collaboration with NGOs BRAC and CMES, helped coordinate rallies and other awareness raising activities, disseminate information and encourage dialogue about HIV and AIDS.

Trained Peer Leaders, such as Shati (17) and Rokon (17) who live in Mirpur in the north-west of, Dhaka, have been working together with their friends to plan for World AIDS Day. Shati and Rokon developed rally slogans and scripts for theater plays on HIV-AIDS and helped organise a girls’ soccer match at the community ground. – a novelty in a country where girls playing football is unusual.  After the match, adolescents from the local centre staged a play highlighting key messages on HIV.

“HIV is very dangerous. I want people to know about it so I joined the rally. In Bangladesh HIV/ AIDS is a problem that is difficult to discuss it in our society.  People think that it’s not a risk because we don’t live a western style of life, but everyone needs to know about these things to protect themselves,” Shati said.

“When I joined the adolescent centre,” says Rokon, “I spoke to my male and female friends and at school. I also discussed the topic of HIV-AIDS with my family. It is important for us, as adolescents, to know about HIV and AIDS, but it is also important for everyone – young and old.”

UNICEF Child Protection Officer Mads Sorensen said World AIDS Day activities organized by adolescents across Bangladesh aimed at encouraging group discussion sessions with parents and community leaders. “By building understanding and awareness on HIV and AIDS among families and communities, we will contribute to further strengthen the protective environment surrounding children and adolescents,” Mads said. “Adolescents, especially girls, also need the support of their communities to take active roles and participate positively in their communities. Their active participation here in Dhaka today demonstrates that this is possible if they are empowered”. 

World AIDS Day rallies and awareness raising activities were held in Panchagor, Nilphamari, Nowgaon, Rajshahi, Chapai, Jamalpur, Sherpur, Cox's Bazar, Dhaka, Kushtia, Sylhet, Chandpur, Comilla, Joypurhat and Gainanda (coordinated by BRAC) and in Chittagong, Barguna, Rangpur and Chapai (coordinated by CMES).

Why is World AIDS Day important?

World AIDS Day is an opportunity for individuals and organisations from around the world to come together to focus attention on the global AIDS epidemic.

According to UNAIDS, today, 5.5 million young p[eople aged 15-24 are estimated to be living with HIV. 45 percent of all new cases in 2007 were found among those 15-24 years old.

On average, about 30% of males and 19 per cent of females aged 15-24 in developing countires have comprehensive and coorect knowledge about HIV and how to avoid transmission. These knowledge levels are far below the goal of comprehensive HIV knowledge of 95 per cent among young people by 2010, as set by the UN General Assembly Special Sessions 9on HIV-AIDS (UNGASS) in 2001.

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