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 My song against AIDS
 Commentary: Speaking out on AIDS

My voice counts too

By Hortense Bla Me *

HIV/AIDS now outranks every other disease as the top killer in Africa. The continent has lost nearly 15 million people to AIDS since the early 1980s, and its children are the majority of the 10.4 million children below the age of 15 who will be orphans by the end of 2000 because of AIDS.

It is a dreadful toll, and the worst is yet to come as infection rates double and triple in other parts of the world. The figures make a compelling case for more resources, clear high-level commitments, fresh and innovative approaches, and shared expertise in dealing with this gargantuan and complex challenge. In Africa, using peer education to reach adolescents and youth is one strategy with unlimited potential. As this young AIDS campaigner from Côte d’Ivoire says, youths can be the most effective communicators for behavioural change, especially when they are involved in creating and disseminating the messages.

I speak for those children and adolescents whose tremendous potential to influence society has not been fully harnessed, with tragic results. If recognized, this potential can turn the tide against the relentless death march of HIV/AIDS.

The disease has infected more than 34.3 million people in the world to date, about a third of whom are youths between the ages of 15 and 24. Every minute, six young people below the age of 25 become infected with HIV. In my country, Côte d’Ivoire, we are told that approximately 11 per cent of the population is seropositive. This infection rate has a direct and immediate impact on children: 320,000 children in Côte d’Ivoire will have lost their mother or both parents to AIDS by the end of 2000.

I believe that to overcome the crisis of AIDS everybody must be involved, particularly the youth. In Côte d’Ivoire, we are trying through youth organizations such as the Parlement des Enfants (Children’s Parliament) to bring a youth perspective to solving the problems facing the country. At the same time, we are changing the perception that youth are a source of these problems.

On the contrary, we are part of the solution. We have many talents and skills. We have a keen sense of the problems in our societies. More significantly, we can communicate effectively with others our age.

Those of us in the Children’s Parliament have found that young people are hungry for information on AIDS. We have seen their behaviour change once they learn the facts. In 1993, for instance, only about 5 per cent of sexually active Ivorian boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 19 used condoms. By 1998, one third of sexually active teenagers in that age group reported always using condoms. This was after AIDS education messages reached them.

Youth engage in risky behaviour in part because of a knowledge gap. Many, particularly those from poor backgrounds, lack ways to get accurate information about AIDS. The 59 per cent of Ivorian boys and 46 per cent of girls who attend primary school do not receive reliable information on HIV/AIDS there.

Parents, who are often uneducated and uninformed themselves, cannot help. More than half of adult men and over two thirds of adult women are illiterate and largely cut off from knowledge about AIDS. Cultural obstacles are another factor. It is still taboo in many families in my country to discuss sex or sexually transmitted infections. Girls in particular are often reluctant or unable to enquire about sex for fear of being considered morally ‘loose’.

The result is that too many children – especially the most marginalized – are ignorant about how the disease spreads. In a recent survey of attitudes about AIDS in Côte d’Ivoire, sponsored by UNICEF, more than half of all youths considered it the responsibility of their parents to provide sex education. However, 9 out of 10 young people said that they learned about sex from the media or on “the street.”

The lack of accurate information from a parent or another close family member is a tragedy. We can, however, turn this into an opportunity. Because young people can and do speak honestly to one another about their concerns when they have the information and the confidence to impart it.

Peer education is one of the most powerful but underused tools we have to confront HIV/AIDS.

I have experience working with young prostitutes in Bouaké, the second largest city in Côte d’Ivoire. One of them, 13-year-old Dominique (a pseudonym), said she became a prostitute when she was 11.

Dominique is from a poor family; she has nine siblings, her father had lost his job and her mother was busy caring for a newborn. Dominique followed a friend into prostitution, earning up to $10 a night, a large sum of money for a girl from a poor family.

Soon, Dominique heard that she could get sick from having unprotected sex but she did not know that an infected person could look normal and healthy; that HIV is spread by having unprotected sex with an infected person; that there is no cure; and that everyone is vulnerable.

I took her to Renaissance Santé Bouaké (RSB), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works on AIDS issues with the support of UNICEF. There she saw shocking pictures of how AIDS destroys the body. She learned that at that time one fourth of all pregnant women in the city were HIV positive.

The information was life changing. She soon brought two other young prostitutes to RSB to learn more about the disease. Now all three girls have quit prostitution and are in a school run by the Catholic Church where they acquire practical life skills. Dominique is attending school and learning to be a seamstress.

But just knowing about HIV/AIDS is not sufficient to change the way we behave. There is another factor: power. AIDS preys most on those who lack power, and girls are the most vulnerable. They are often pressured or forced into having sex, or are denied information they need to help them make informed decisions. Girls frequently lack the skills to negotiate with boys or men and the confidence to challenge them; girls fear that being too assertive will make them unpopular. Even when a girl makes an informed decision to have sex, she may be unable to negotiate safe sex.

So it is not enough just to teach skills. The Children’s Parliament of Côte d’Ivoire has made it a priority to talk about HIV/AIDS in the context of children’s rights. We explain the Convention on the Rights of the Child and tell young people that they have a right to be educated and a right to participate in decisions about their bodies and their lives.

For a young person, challenging cultural and sexual stereotypes is a tall task. The community must stand behind young people as they assert themselves. RSB is recruiting parents, teachers and children into the effort. Project Miwa (My Child) is helping educate young and old alike about HIV/AIDS and children’s rights.

Young people, especially adolescent girls, have been reassured to see that they are not alone in tackling this frightening disease. Project Miwa does more than promote health: It makes AIDS education a way of empowering healthy children.

AIDS is challenging us to find new solutions to our problems. Together, we really can save the world.

* Hortense Bla Me, age 19, is the President of 100-member Children's Parliament in Côte d'Ivoire, which she joined at the age of 13. She is an active promoter of the rights of children and young people and especially of youth involvement in HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns. See profile.

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