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It’s time to talk about sex and HIV: Timor-Leste’s first nationwide HIV/AIDS campaign urges young people to find out more and to take action

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2007/See
Two colourfully-decorated campaign vehicles, with banners, flags, and young people, park at the Taibessi football field where the Dili district launch was held.

By Bridgette See

Dili, 1 August 2007 – In Timor-Leste, ‘eggplants’ and ‘flowers’ have become handy code names for HIV educators when referring to the genitals. This, they say, makes it less awkward to talk about sexual reproduction and HIV with young people.

“Initially some of the young people were angry [to talk about genitals], they said it was immoral to mention those terms in public,” said Domingos dos Santos, from local NGO Fundasaun Timor Harii. He and colleague Amelia Carlos train young people to be HIV peer educators - an activity supported by UNICEF.

Amelia Carlos said that only a few young people from each of her sessions really know their own bodies, and about sexually-transmitted infections.

“When we show the models of the genitals, they’re so shy. The girls hide behind their hands, while the boys tend to joke a lot,” she said.

But Timor-Leste cannot avoid talking about sex or HIV any longer. Over the years, the number of reported HIV cases has increased, from 7 in 2002, to 43 at the end of 2006. 11 have died so far, on this island of less than 1 million people. The seemingly small number of known HIV cases may only be the tip of the iceberg, as Voluntary and Confidential Counselling and Testing (VCCT) for HIV is currently limited to 3 service outlets in Dili and thus is still not widely accessible to most, especially outside Dili.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2007/See
A male volunteer with a party mask, and a hat with condoms strung on, at the Dili district launch of the HIV/AIDS campaign. This district launch is part of the national campaign coordinated the Ministry of Health, and supported by UNICEF.

For the first time, a refreshingly bold campaign led by the Ministry of Health is urging young people to find out more about HIV/AIDS and more importantly, to take preventive action. With its slogan “It’s time to talk” this UNICEF-supported government campaign is now entering its second month after its national launch in June.
Now, all 13 districts have begun their activities which include HIV trainings, parades, outreach, so as to provide information, and encourage young people to find out more on how they can protect themselves from HIV infection.

“This campaign is viewed by UNICEF as a very important first line action to break the silence about HIV and AIDS,” said Bridget Job-Johnson, UNICEF Adolescents and HIV/AIDS Specialist. “This will fulfil the right of young people of Timor-Leste to accurate information about HIV/AIDS so they could take informed decision.”

She added, “Young people form a big proportion of the Timor population, experience from across the world had proven that young people are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection for many reasons.”

27 year old Rosario  is one of the many young people who are actively participating in the national campaign. He discovered he was HIV positive a year ago while studying in Indonesia. He thinks he may have contracted the virus when he experimented with drugs and acquired tattoos using shared needles. Now, as a volunteer in the HIV campaign workforce, he wants to share as much information as possible to prevent others from getting infected.

“I think the campaign is so important for people like me who are positive,” he said. “So many of us don’t have clear information about HIV/AIDS and are scared.

At a public event, Rosario went onstage to sing some comical songs that tickle the crowd. Cheerful, healthy and energetic, he gave no indication that he was HIV positive, although he would have to bear the burden of living with the virus for the rest of his life. This may also be the case of many young people who have not tested for HIV, and are unaware of their status.

“I want to encourage people who are positive to get treatment and information, and I hope others would stay away from risky sexual behaviour or use drugs with shared needles,” Rosario said.

As part of the campaign, 80 Master Trainers were trained to conduct HIV training for 1,525 campaign volunteers, who would in turn pass on the information to 40,000 youths in their communities.

According to a baseline survey conducted as part of the campaign strategy, 61% of 1097 youth surveyed said they had heard of HIV/AIDS. Although the awareness is high, the lack of accurate knowledge is still a major concern, for instance, half of the young people who had heard about HIV believed insect bites could spread the virus.

Young people are also already engaging in sexually-risky behaviours. In the survey, 39% said they have had sexual intercourse, with six out of ten having their first encounter between 15-19 years old. More than half had unprotected sex, and more than one sexual partner.

Key steps towards HIV prevention are being taken in Timor-Leste with on going efforts from the government and its partners. The campaign, as one of the key steps, is helping to break the silence and desensitise HIV/AIDS discussions.

Recently at the Dili district campaign launch, two volunteers distributed red ribbons and campaign buttons while wearing hats adorned with condoms– a rare but encouraging sign of increasing acceptance to the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission.



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