Youth Challenge Myths, Stigma and HIV/AIDS in Rural Jamaica.
Kerril McKay was a spunky, round-faced 14 year old girl living in the rural parish of Portland on Jamaica’s northeast coast. But when her father was diagnosed with AIDS, the burdens that fell on Kerril made her feel like an old woman. With her parents separated, the teenager was suddenly thrust into the lonely and grueling role of caretaker.
“I didn’t really want to accept the fact that my dad was sick. It was denial.” The ebullient young woman pauses as she recounts the story. Tears suddenly well in her eyes and run down her cheeks onto her pink blouse. “When I realized how sick he was, I nearly committed suicide.”
During the time Kerril’s father was sick, she sought help from Jamaica AIDS Support, an NGO that assists families and individuals dealing with HIV/AIDS. She also turned to the UNICEF-supported Portland Parish AIDS Committee, one of 13 parish committees around the country that implement national AIDS strategies on a local level. Kerril reflects “People always said to me you are a strong girl. So I started to believe that about myself.”
As Kerril slowly regained her strength, she embarked on a mission to educate the people in Portland about HIV/AIDS. It was 2000 and together with some friends Kerril joined the Portland AIDS Committee as it launched a youth arm. The slogan of the Parish AIDS Committee youth was “A Force for Change.” The youth group is part of an effort being made through UNICEF to reduce the rate of HIV transmission among adolescents by providing them with information aimed at enhancing their sexual decision-making and promoting increased access to services and counseling.
“We hoped we could reach out to other teens to help other persons who were infected with HIV, and just basically let anybody know who needs any counseling that we are there,” says Kerril. “We are a bunch of teens and we can do something positive.
The group does “walk and talks” throughout the community, giving information, doing condom demonstrations and spreading the word that HIV/AIDS is everyone’s business. The young people also do educational programmes on a local cable television station, visit schools and give drama performances and presentations in local parks.
They work out of a newly renovated railroad station in the centre of Port Antonio, the bustling capital of the parish. Young people will periodically drop in to talk or get condoms. The AIDS centre is a “safe place” for young people and others to learn the facts about sexually transmitted diseases.
The fresh memory of her father’s suffering keeps Kerril committed to the struggle against HIV/AIDS. “Now I am a very determined person in anything that I put my mind to achieve,” says the young woman.