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Young Malaysian footballers go on the offensive against HIV and AIDS

© UNICEF Malaysia/2007
Exchange student Dipra Ray, 19, leads an interactive discussion on HIV and AIDS for students of Malaysia’s First Touch Football programme.

By Steve Nettleton

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, 10 April 2007 – Shawn Daniels, 16, holds a teammate in a headlock, refusing to let go. Instead of coming to the aid of Shawn’s captive, the rest of the team looks on and laughs.

“This is when we have AIDS,” says Dipra Ray, 19, an exchange student from New Zealand who is leading a special interactive drama for teenagers of Malaysia’s First Touch Football programme. Shawn bears a red placard that says, ‘HIV’. His teammate holds a green-coloured card that reads, ‘White blood cell’.

“HIV has trapped our white blood cells,” continues Dipra. “AIDS is the time when our body cannot fight against diseases or other infections.”

This unusual pre-game pep talk is now a standard ritual for the Football Association of Malaysia’s youth programme in Kuala Lumpur. It is a new approach to reach out to young people, who are increasingly at risk of catching and spreading HIV.

Informing an overlooked population

“In Malaysia, more than 37 per cent of the group who are currently infected are between the ages of 13 and 29,” said Gaye Phillips, UNICEF Representative in Malaysia and Special Representative to Singapore and Brunei. “That’s a serious population group that we need to look at. Because it shows us that young people are not being well informed.”

© UNICEF Malaysia/2007
Members of the Football Association of Malaysia youth leagues listen to a lesson about avoiding HIV.

In partnership with UNICEF, the Football Association of Malaysia and the Association for the International Exchange of Students of Economics and Commerce (AIESEC) are working to make youth more aware of the dangers of HIV – and what they can do to avoid it.

The programme complements UNICEF’s strategic approach to HIV prevention amongst youth through life skills-based education, youth centres in rural areas and harm reduction for injecting drug users.

Life-saving behaviour

A key to that effort is reaching young people through their peers. Dipra, the AIESEC exchange student, believes young men and women will only absorb the message if it comes from people they can relate to, in an active setting far from the classroom.

“For us, I think the biggest motivation is that we’re coming here, we’re having fun, but at the same time we try to make sure that they get the lesson,” said Dipra. “Because if the young generation – if I, my friends – know how we can stop HIV, we can stop it. It’s not like it has to spread. It can be stopped.”

For Shawn, it’s a lesson that is starting to sink in. “I learned about many things,” he said. “How to protect myself, how to say no. They don’t teach us about HIV in school.”

Encouraging life-saving behaviour both on and off the football pitch, UNICEF and its partners hope to give young people a winning game plan to follow, long after the whistle is blown.




UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on efforts to spread youth awareness about HIV/AIDS in Malaysia.
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