|© UNICEF Ethiopia|
|Members of the Tabor Wegagen Anti-AIDS Association.|
Members of a young people’s association in the city of Awassa, Ethiopia, used to be greeted by insults when they went door to door to educate their community about HIV/AIDS. Today, their reception is entirely different.
“HIV/AIDS has come knocking on everyone's door,” says Yetarik, 17, who has been a member of the Tabor Wegagen Anti-AIDS Association for four years. “Four years ago people would insult us when we went out to teach. Today, especially the older generation, the adults, are quiet and listen to what we have to say.”
Empowering young people with knowledge
But Yetarik adds ruefully, “With adolescents, however, it is still difficult. They continue to insult us – they accuse us of having AIDS and blame us for its spread. Every time I am confronted with this attitude, I know that we have to work even harder, we have to keep going so that we can get to the youth in order to prevent suffering and save lives.”
Tabor Wegagen was established six years ago by a group of young people who came together to seek ways to inform their peers about the disease devastating their country.
“It is a great association. Promoting behavioural change started with ourselves. All 20 of us decided to have ourselves tested for HIV to confirm our own status and to be an example for other youth to follow. We are grateful that all our results came back negative,” states Yetarik. “The activities that we engage in through the association allow those who do not comprehend the basic facts about this epidemic to reach a firm understanding. This comprehension then empowers people to take measures to protect themselves.”
The association has developed a series of activities designed to reach young people and the community at large. Yetarik and four other members have undergone an extensive Training-of-Trainers conducted by a UNICEF-supported NGO. The five young trainers have gone on to teach the other members of their association to become peer educators. Each peer educator is responsible for gathering a group of five to 10 adolescents and sharing information about reproductive health, sexually-transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS with them twice a week for a period of two months.
The group also creates and performs plays on various subjects, like the one dealing with stigma and discrimination they presented last year to mark World AIDS Day in Awassa. Yetarik plays the role of an HIV-positive woman who has lost both her husband and child to AIDS. She listens helplessly as her landlady orders her to move from the small room she rents.
“This is a large community,” the older woman explains. “Many families live here, children play around here. We all share the same bathroom and kitchen. You can’t live with us in your condition. I want you to pack your bags, pay the rent that you owe and leave immediately.”
The play has a happy ending for Yetarik’s character: she is allowed to stay because a friend convinces the landlady that neither she nor the other tenants are in danger of contracting HIV simply by living with an HIV-positive person. As the play ends, the former adversaries hug each other.
In addition to peer education programmes and performances, Tabor Wegagen has a football team and a small circus. Football matches and circus performances are used as an opportunity to spread awareness and teach youth about the epidemic. They also keep the young athletes and performers off the streets, away from harmful habits and risky behaviour.
“I am taking the path of abstinence as the best way to protect myself from contracting HIV/AIDS,” explains Yetarik. “If it should become impossible to wait until marriage, then I will insist on using condoms in a faithful, monogamous relationship. The big problem today is that young people are not refraining from risky sexual activity, they are not staying with just one partner. And I am afraid for them because not all of them use condoms.”
“Our goal is not only to equip young people with the knowledge and skills that are needed to survive this epidemic, but also to foster a more tolerant and caring community that does not simply abandon unfortunate victims out of ignorance and fear, like my character in the drama,” says Yetarik. “We want a society that finds the heart and compassion to take care of them and ease their suffering as much as possible.”