Reaching out to the party kids: an HIV awareness camp
CHIANG MAI, January 2006 – It’s 6 p.m., and as the sun begins to sink behind the mountains, a bus pulls up outside a cheap hotel in a small Thai town. Around 20 teenagers climb out. They look like a group of young people on a school trip – but they’re not. This is an HIV/AIDS awareness camp for kids who like to party, and these kids are usually partying far too hard to make it to school.
First off the bus is Peach. She’s 14, pregnant and trying to decide whether to return her friend’s stolen mobile or sell it to pay for an abortion.
Then there’s Jay, who started taking drugs when he was 15 and who only stopped when his father asked the police to lock him up.
After Jay comes 17-year-old Kap. His daughter will be two years old next year. His estranged ex-girlfriend and the mother of their child is a year or so younger than he is.
After Kap come 15 more kids carrying guitars, backpacks and bottles of soda because alcohol and drugs are banned here. Their problems are all different, but the kids all have a lot in common – they are lost, confused, poor, in need of guidance, but fundamentally decent. At heart, just a typical bunch of teenagers reacting to a hard start in life.
The camp is being run by a UNICEF-supported NGO called WY, or We Are Your Friends, which operates projects to educate and help young people who are at risk of infection with HIV.
WY’s manager, Sarah, explains: “The aim of the camp is to get young people to think about their lives and give them clear and accurate information about sex and drugs – information that is often hard to come by.”
Although young people today are more sexually active than a generation ago, their knowledge of sex has not kept pace with their behaviour. This is clear to see from the things the children say while at the camp.
“I don’t need to use protection during sex,” says Apple, a 15-year-old girl. “I drink and smoke everyday so it is impossible for me to get pregnant.” But Apple’s confidence in the preventive power of cigarettes and alcohol is misplaced, as many of the children here can testify. Of the 15 boys here, five raise their hands when the group is asked how many of them have ever made their girlfriends pregnant.
Kap is one of them. “My girlfriend got pregnant last year,” he says. “Sometimes we would have sex without a condom if we had run out.”
Fortunately, he could turn to Sarah for guidance. Kap initially wanted his girlfriend to have an abortion, which usually means relying on dangerous under-the-counter prescription drugs. But he changed his mind after counselling from WY.
“I can’t explain what it’s like to be a father,” he says. “But I feel like I can’t be a bad boy like I was before. I’m putting money aside so my child can study.”
Kap is not the only member of the group to practice safe sex only irregularly. “We don’t use condoms if the girl is a virgin, which we know from the blood,” says Ake as part of one group activity. The other children look at him slightly confused before one points out that you would only see the blood after sex, so it could hardly help you decide if you needed a condom beforehand. But Ake is not easy to faze. He shrugs, grins and says: “Well, if she says she doesn’t know how to do it, she must be a virgin!”
But in a culture where women are supposed to be sexually pure and men often cheat on their partners, both sides in any relationship have an incentive to play down the amount of their sexual experience. Relying on trust can be fatal, but many still do.
“We don’t use condoms with our ‘wives’ or our ‘girlfriends’ because we trust that they are having sex only with us,” says Ake. “Your wife,” he then explains, “is the one you’ve dated for a long time – like three or four months. Your girlfriend is the one you sleep with sometimes.” These are not to be confused with your gig (“special friend”), whom you “sleep with when you can’t find your girlfriend”.
There are also cultural practices that influence sexual behaviour. Some are harmless (many of the boys who have been tattooed by monks said they would not let their girlfriends go on top because it would reduce the magic power of the tattoos). Others can be deadly.
For example, some young men sow metal bars into the heads of their penises to increase their partners’ pleasure. Others insert the plastic filters found at the top of whisky bottles. The resulting infections make the transmission of HIV/AIDS more likely.
It will take a long time to change these practices, but giving young people the information they need and a chance to think about their lives in a supportive environment is a good start.
On the second day of the camp, a different bus pulls up outside the hotel. The bus is full of primary-school children. They seem to cry a little more than is usual, but otherwise there is nothing to suggest that this is not a school outing.
In fact, it is another NGO camp, this time for children who are HIV-positive or whose parents have been killed by AIDS. Perhaps the message is not lost on the WY camp’s young people – if projects like WY are not successful, these buses will keep pulling up for another generation.