A mistake in your life is not a full stop; it is a comma
Young Dima* had a girlfriend and his dream was to get married and start a family. He could not imagine that his life would take a different direction. Just one misstep and everything crumbled away. Dima's life never resembled a fairy-tale but in the correctional colony for juveniles where he ended up a couple of years ago, life seemed completely dark.
A ray of hope broke through the darkness when volunteers from the All-Ukrainian Public Centre "Volunteer" came to the colony. This Centre has been working with UNICEF on HIV prevention among youth for many years. Initial meetings and workshops on risky behaviours and HIV prevention were not met with much enthusiasm from Dima and his peers in the colony. Why would they need it? But soon the boy started to participate actively in the workshops and is now being trained as a leader. Dima's attitude to his own health has drastically changed after a couple of months of talking to volunteers and attending workshops. He started to exercise and quit smoking, though he was a heavy smoker before and has even tried pills.
"He has proved to be a good person. He is respected by others. He has leadership skills", - says Kateryna Sergeyeva, senior social worker at the Centre, about Dima's strengths. With these qualities Dima has the chance to become a peer-to-peer leader and positive role model for other adolescents showing others that health is your most precious gift, but it can be destroyed by risky behaviour.
Juvenile convicts in penitentiary institutions such as correctional colonies and investigation facilities (SIZO) are vulnerable to HIV infection. At the same time, there is no statistical data about HIV-positive juveniles in the penitentiary system in Ukraine.
Olena Sakovych, Youth and Adolescent Development Specialist at UNICEF Ukraine, explained: "Risky behaviours, such as tattooing with shared unsterile instruments and unsafe sex, are widespread among adolescents in conflict with the law. They increase the risk of contracting HIV and other infections. That's why "Volunteer" and UNICEF play an extremely important role in informing imprisoned and detained adolescents how to protect their health and avoid the risk of HIV infection upon deinstitutionalisation."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and other international organizations, in all countries of the world HIV prevalence among imprisoned and detained population is 5-10 times higher than among the general population. Unfortunately, Ukraine is not an exception. Therefore there is an urgent need to raise awareness among vulnerable groups.
Dima is not the only one actively participating in the workshops and rethinking life values. Gradually, more and more adolescents in the colony have been joining the workshops. Ordinary lectures and sermons tend not to captivate the attention of children and adolescents ,. The workshops in the colony are interactive and game-based. They encourage individual thinking, analysis and drawing conclusions. The main goal of the sessions is to increase motivation for behaviour change and HIV testing.
"Of course, initially we face resistance. We do not force anyone to participate - it's purely on a voluntary basis. But we have noticed that adolescents, who were sceptical at the beginning, gradually started joining in the workshops", - says Kateryna Sergeyeva.
Only time, patience and openness help to get through to these boys. Kateryna said that recently the boys were given the task of writing a story about their dreams and plans for the future. Despite harsh life experiences, deep in their hearts these adolescents dream about a family.
Dima's biggest dream is to become a successful businessman, to start a family and to raise children. He is already taking first steps towards his dream. After becoming a volunteer leader he will help his peers to take their first steps by changing risky behaviours and protecting their health.
According to the State Penitentiary Service of Ukraine, only 50% of juveniles have attended school or other educational institutions before going to prison, over 30% have neither studied nor worked before committing a crime. Each year nearly 50-70 illiterate adolescents are being sentenced to correctional colonies.
Over 60% of juvenile convicts are social or biological orphans and do not receive adequate care and upbringing. Before imprisonment they are mostly spending time hanging out on the streets in asocial and criminal gangs. Their values, role models and patterns of behaviour are formed and developed there.
* The name is changed for ethical reasons.