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Damienne’s story: Raising awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention through open dialogue

© UNICEF Togo/2008/Bonnaud
Damienne, a 17-year-old peer educator in Togo, is committed to teaching HIV/AIDS prevention to her schoolmates.

By Hadrien Bonnaud

TSÉVIÉ, Togo, 9 May 2008 – Damienne, a 17-year-old high school student, has been a peer educator for five years, teaching her classmates about HIV prevention. Her goal, she says, is to get people to speak out and to bury the taboos.

In Togo, only 1 in 10 adolescents has a thorough understanding of HIV/AIDS and the ways it can be transmitted.

Faced with a growing risk of HIV infection among young people, UNICEF, in collaboration with the Togolese Government and UNAIDS, recently supported a national youth campaign against HIV/AIDS in Togo. The main objective of this effort was to promote HIV prevention among youths by organizing discussion forums, awareness-raising events and concerts.

Three means of HIV prevention

Doing her part during the campaign, Damienne met with a group of high school students excited by the opportunity to have an open conversation about HIV/AIDS. The students took turns asking Damienne questions and engaged her in a debate regarding the three recommended means of HIV prevention: abstinence, fidelity and the use of condoms.

“None of the means you are presenting are reliable. Once we have tried sex, abstinence is over. Fidelity is OK, but you can never be sure of what your partner is doing. As for condoms, I have friends who got infected by HIV/AIDS while still using them,” said one student.

Remaining calm and confident, Damienne explained to the student that protecting oneself against HIV requires adopting a life of discipline.

“In the same way that to become a doctor you need to adopt a work discipline, to protect yourself from HIV, you need to be rigorous with your sexuality. Unfortunately, there is no vaccination available, so these are the means we have to use to protect ourselves,” she said.

Replacing myths with facts

Forums that allow young people to talk openly about sex and HIV prevention are vital to the effort to dispel myths and rumours that cling to the disease. In Togo, misunderstandings and misinformation abound in discussions of HIV/AIDS. But peer educators like Damienne are undaunted in their efforts to replace the myths about HIV/AIDS with the facts. 

In the discussion group, a high school senior named Mawako confronted Damienne with some of these myths.

“I don’t want to take the test because I am afraid of being infected by HIV whilst taking it. Mystical powers can cure sicknesses. For instance, Gambian President Yahia Jammeh claims that he can cure AIDS with herbal products,” Mawako said.

Damienne was quick to correct the student.

'Protect yourselves'

“It is not by taking the test that you get infected. You get infected by not protecting yourself. As for the mystical beliefs, if such herbal potions could cure, there would be no more HIV/AIDS in Africa! Protect yourselves, it is much safer!” she said.

When the bell rang and the students were heading towards the exit door, some took advantage of the break to take Damienne’s phone number or ask her further questions about HIV/AIDS.

Amidst the noise, one student could be heard saying, “I’ve learned about HIV/AIDS and one thing is for sure: I won’t let it infect me.”



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