|© UNICEF Panama/2006/Cousineau|
|Members of the youth group raising HIV/AIDS awareness in Colon, Panama. Jose, 16, is at far right.|
By Anna Vives
COLON, Panama, 19 April 2006 – Once a week Jose, 16, gets together with some of his friends to hang out, sing, dance and talk, just like teenagers everywhere. Unlike many typical teens, though, Jose and his group mainly discuss HIV/AIDS.
For four years, Jose has been part of an HIV/AIDS youth group sponsored by IDEMI (Instituto para el Desarrollo de la Mujer y la Infancia) and UNICEF here in Colon. The group gives young people like Jose the opportunity to learn about HIV/AIDS, while at the same time teaching them to become peer educators.
Jose and the approximately 100 other boys and girls who make up the group write and produce plays about HIV/AIDS issues, which they perform to help raise awareness among children and adolescents in their communities. Other activities – such as sports, painting and playing music – are also a part of the programme.
Basis for health decisions
Each year, IDEMI trains another 1,000 young people to become peer educators; some 4,000 have been trained since the youth group’s inception. "Our main job is to organize, prepare and educate adolescents on HIV/AIDS prevention," says Programme Coordinator Beth Vargas.
In Colon, the city with the second highest HIV prevalence rate in Panama, recent studies indicate that most of the people between the ages of 20 and 40 who are living with HIV contracted the virus in early adolescence. Prevention programmes like Jose’s aim to give children and young people the tools they need to protect themselves and make smart choices.
"Basically, we are protecting their rights of being informed, of knowing what HIV is,” says Programme Assistant Ana Nestorvic. “So later they can make healthy decision for their lives."
John Allison contributed to this story from New York.