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Alexis Sarza and BALUTI believe in the power of youth

© UNICEF Philippines/2011/RSantos
Students watch a video on HIV / AIDS followed by a lecture on teenage pregnancy, unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortions sexually transmitted infections, and HIV and AIDS by Alex Sarza – founder of BALUTI.

PARAÑAQUE CITY – Around a hundred high school students from Don Galo National High School were giggling and shrieking as they sat on the floor inside the newly constructed second floor classroom. Based on the mischievous glint in their eyes, nobody would guess that these students were watching a video presentation about HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

For the morning, regular class was temporarily replaced by a 4-hour session so the students could learn more about HIV/AIDS/STIs, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse. The session included an interactive video presentation, lectures and open forum. It was organized and implemented by BALUTI, in cooperation with the school administration, as part of Batang Laging Umiiwas sa Tiyak na Impeksyon (BALUTI) NGO’s Give Me Five module, a short course that covers the following topics:

• HIV/AIDS/STIs
• Teenage pregnancy
• Substance abuse
• Safe behaviors
• VCCT (voluntary counseling and confidential testing)

 

The work of BALUTI

BALUTI stands for Batang Laging Umiiwas sa Tiyak na Impeksyon (Young People Who Avoid Infection), an organization that aims to educate the youth on the risks of HIV, AIDS and STIs. Aside from the Give Me Five module, they also have programs on children’s rights, reproductive health, and life skills for the youth.

To date, there are 35 BALUTI volunteers from different schools and communities in Parañaque who conduct sessions for students and the local youth. The group also focuses on young people who are considered to be most at risk from the conditions mentioned above. These would include gang members, out-of-school youth, fraternity members and those who use illegal drugs.

The conversion of Alexis

Alexis Sarza, the 30-year old founder of BALUTI, was himself a gang member, illegal drug user and heavy drinker since he was fourteen years old. He got involved in these activities because of peer influence, and kept living this lifestyle for around eight years. “My lowest point came when fights started to happen in the family, and when I began selling our possessions,” Sarza reveals.

Around this time, his opportunity for change came through a ten-day training organized by Save the Children Philippines and Lunduyan Foundation Inc., a non-government organization that advocates for children’s rights. Sarza, together with other young participants, underwent a series of intensive peer education trainings that gave them the necessary skills to share with the youth their knowledge on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and STIs, children’s rights and safe sex. Sarza eventually established BALUTI, together with twelve of his co-trainees, in 2003.

“It is easy to change if you really want to, that’s what I always say,” Sarza admits, “especially if there are people or groups who support you, and if you are doing something worthwhile.” Changing oneself is easy, according to Sarza, but it is more difficult to change the perception of people who have already made up their minds about you. But Sarza is determined to spread the word to as many young people as possible because, in his own words, “they need to know... and no one else would tell them.”

 

The youth and HIV/AIDS

Today’s young people need all the information about these important issues because according to data, one third of all new HIV cases involve young people from 15 to 24 years old. And in developing countries like the Philippines, only 30 percent of males and 19 percent of females from the 15- to 19-year old bracket have correct and comprehensive knowledge of HIV. Local data from December 2010 also revealed that there was a 38% increase in the number of HIV-positive individuals, compared with data from the same period last year. This figure was confirmed by the STD/AIDS Cooperative Central Laboratory and reported to the Philippine HIV and AIDS Registry.

 

A powerful video

To support the obvious need for education and youth empowerment, UNICEF Philippines works with BALUTI in helping the youth learn facts about HIV, AIDS and STIs, as they make informed choices and decisions. UNICEF assigned BALUTI the rights to implement its Power of You campaign and to include it in their school and community presentations. The Power of You is an interactive educational campaign prepared by UNICEF and the Department of Education for the use of high school students. It aims to give information on HIV, AIDS and STIs in a manner that is fun, easy to understand and interesting.

“Because of The Power of You, we were able to strengthen our partnerships with the schools,” Sarza says. Before getting access to the video, BALUTI volunteers used to conduct lengthy lectures on HIV, AIDS and STIs, which usually bored the participants. The Power of You allows the viewers to choose the path that the characters on the video will take, in effect giving them the power to decide what happens to the characters. “The students really listen because they are the ones who will have to make the important decisions,” Sarza explains.

And this was why the Don Galo high school students were screaming that morning as they watched this powerful film. They were trying to make a decision on whether Francis, one of the characters in the video, should or should not go and have sex with the school heartthrob. The group eventually decided that Francis should go for it, a choice that showed the students how Francis suffered the difficult and alarming consequences of his actions.

BALUTI’s wish list

Sarza wishes to obtain more videos, educational materials and equipment that the group can use in their trainings. Right now, they only borrow laptops from the Adolescent Friendly Reproductive Health Services (AFRHS), a network of organizations, groups and local government units in three cities: Taguig, Las Piñas, Parañaque.

Sarza also expressed the need for program expansion and funding for 2013 and beyond. The grant money they have been receiving from the Staying Alive Foundation since June 2008 will only last until 2012. There is a need, therefore, for the local government units to recognize the value of their work and decide to fund their future projects to ensure that these would continue beyond 2012.
Achievements and fulfillment: the fight continues

Within a span of 8 years, BALUTI was able to reach out to more than 10,000 young people and extend important knowledge about HIV, AIDS and STIs. The group has also trained around 40 young people as peer educators who can pass the life-saving messages on to others. Currently, BALUTI has presence in four schools and four communities in Parañaque.

Specifically, BALUTI has prepared a one-year plan for Don Galo National High School, and has been conducting workshops in the school for six months already. Gee Marc Angelo Nery, a 14-year old peer educator at Don Galo, feels fulfilled about his work. “I’m happy that I have the knowledge and that some schoolmates actually listened and stopped smoking when I told them about its negative effects on the body,” he says.
For a lot of young individuals who normally wouldn’t have access to information that could save their lives, these workshops and trainings are a lifeline. The hard work of Alexis Sarza and his 40 BALUTI volunteers is an important component in the fight against HIV, AIDS, STIs, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse among the Filipino youth.

 

 
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