Malaysian youth centres help to keep children safe from HIV/AIDS
PENDANG KEDAH, 22 November 2006 – Like most adolescents, Mat felt the need to belong to a group and wanted to experiment with high-risk behavior. At 17, he found himself joining an illegal motorbike racing gang in an attempt to fit in. “I thought I was so cool,” he recalled.
Malaysia’s motorbike gangs known as "Mat Rempits" are commonly associated with risky activities such as crime, violence, drug abuse and unsafe sex. Because over 75 per cent of those living with HIV in Malaysia are between the ages of 20 and 39, HIV prevention among young people – including gang members – has become a top priority of the Government and UNICEF.
An effective response has already begun in the State of Kedah, which reportedly has one of the country’s fastest growing HIV infection rates. In 2004, the Ministry of Health partnered with UNICEF to launch the state’s first PROSTAR youth centre. This two-year pilot project focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention through youth-friendly activities and peer-to-peer education.
“One of the most effective ways to deliver HIV prevention messages to youth is through youth,” said UNICEF Representative in Malaysia Gaye Phillips. “When a message is conveyed from one young person to another, it stays with the younger person longer – resulting in behaviour change, which is essential for HIVAIDS prevention.”
Making positive choices
Under the motto, ‘Action by Youth, for Youth and through Youth’, the PROSTAR youth centres not only offer peer-to-peer counselling but also provide leadership opportunities for young people.
For Mat, having a young person he could confide in during his difficult times helped him make a positive choice: to leave the gang.
“When I decided to change my life, I really needed someone to talk to, but I wanted to speak to someone my own age who wouldn’t judge me,” said Mat. He confided in Along, a 19-year-old supervisor at one of six youth centres in rural Kedah. Along suggested counselling with PROSTAR.
“I felt so much more comfortable going to the centre because it was outside of school,” explained Mat. “I really didn’t want other people to see I had problems.”
But peer counselling is only part of the mission of the six PROSTAR centres. They also provide children and young people a safe space to hang out, play games, study and access information on HIV and AIDS. At one centre that has the only Internet café in the district, there are roughly 500 young people registered. The same centre offers counselling and anonymous HIV screening.
Community and royal support
Since HIVAIDS continues to be a culturally and religiously sensitive topic, the success of the PROSTAR youth centres rests heavily on community approval and support. Over the last two years, the Ministry of Health has made it a priority to enlist various religious and community leaders in supporting the objectives of the centres.
Adding influence to the program is its affiliation with the state’s royal family. The first PROSTAR youth centre was launched in 2004 by Her Highness Dato’ Seri Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz, the Princess of Kedah.
“I believe it is important for young people to come together and socialise in very healthy, positive ways,” she said. “Using sports and knowledge as a way of encouraging youth to come together is an effective way of discouraging them from participating in risky activity.”
Through the PROSTAR pilot project – which is reaching nearly 300,000 youths – UNICEF hopes to inspire similar initiatives in other communities.
“I almost wasted my life,” said Mat. “Now my whole life has changed. Through the counselling I received, I am now able to reach my full potential.”
22 November 2006:
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25 November 2005:
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