Peers helping peers

Counseling and training for peer educators has helped 17-year-old Nikola Polic to gain a realistic perspective on life.

Young people at the centre
UNICEF Serbia/2011/Shubuckl
05 May 2011

The first floor of the health centre in Loznica is crowded with young people.

The corridors are plastered with posters on healthy lifestyles, risks of unprotected sexual intercourse, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. In the waiting room in front of the Youth Counseling Service there are six young people sitting and openly, almost intimately, chatting with Doctor Nada Djuric.

Zoran Soskic, a 19-year-old boy, jokes that his doctor has replaced his mom and dad, because if there wasn't a doctor's help, he would have continued to consume alcohol throughout his adolescence, and certainly he would not be studying in Business School in Loznica.

Zoran was brought to the Youth Counseling Service for the first time two years ago by a friend who was worried about him while Zoran was fighting with alcohol, and too much of a free life, as he admits.

"I wanted to do something about my way of my life. I just drank; I didn't think of home, or family, I was a bad pupil. It was a very free life; it seemed to me that my drinking had no end. The counseling I received at the Youth Counseling Service gave me a proper guidance, I gained friends, I saw a real laugh. Before I just laughed when I was drunk " says Zoran.

Now, drawing on his own experience, Zoran wants to help his peers who are facing teenage problems.

He joined the team of peer counsellors at the Youth Counseling Service, trying to convey what he has learnt from the team.

He and five of his friends from the Youth Counseling Service passed a few training sessions for peer educators and they now talk openly to other young people about the most common and most requested topics, such as unprotected sex, sexual behaviour, healthy lifestyles, the risks of HIV and hepatitis infection.

Dr Nada Djuric, Head of the Youth Counseling Service in Loznica, says that many people wouldn't believe Zoran was a peer educator because he has a piercing on his face and wears torn pants.

"Children and adolescents recognize us because we, unlike the common doctors at the health centres, talk freely with them in every conversation about sex, contraception, substance abuse and other important topics of their adolescence.

In terms of communication with young people peer educators have a significant role because they bring peers who have problems with unprotected sex, exposure to various risks, and many of their peers come here for testing, counseling, education" says Doctor Djuric.

The Youth Counseling Service in Loznica has been working since 2000, when peer education on HIV/AIDS started, and later, with assistance from UNICEF, the Service started to standardize their peer education programme.

UNICEF has helped the Service to define counseling; to apply standards to the training for peer educators; to promote youth counseling, which now covers diverse issues of teenager' development - from healthy eating habits, through ecology, to reproductive health.

When they finish their training, peer educators are active in education and open discussions with peers from their schools.

It means over 20 classes from one school are being educated in any given period of time with the help of peer educators on topics like prevention of unwanted pregnancies, risky behavior and so on.

Counseling and training for peer educators has helped 17-year-old Nikola Polic to gain a realistic perspective on life, which he was not previously aware of, because he thought he would always remain uninformed like most of his peers from Loznica.

"I realized that my generation has been occupied by small things, like going out and marks. I didn't think about what would happen the day after tomorrow. Young people do not know what they would like to do in life.

Counseling changed me compared to the time when I was just preoccupied with marks and going out, but here I learned that life should not be monotonous. I am a peer educator now, trying to convey this to my peers " says Nikola.

Nikola says that most young people in Loznica are afraid to go to the doctor if they really have a problem.

This is why many of his peers are now ready to approach him and contact him if they are afraid of risky sexual behavior, because they know that he can listen to them as a peer educator and refer them to counseling where the doctors will be able to assist them in a proper manner.

His peer, Branislav Stojkovic, said that adolescents in Loznica are not much aware of the risks of unprotected sex because this topic is rarely discussed at home and schools.

People at the centre
UNICEF Serbia/2011/Shubuckl

"The guys in Loznica say: 'Why do I need a condom? I'm a guy'. Young people in my school really talk like this and I am trying to explain that they are bigger guys if they use a condom, because that guards their health and the health of their partners" says Branislav. 

"I think most of them respond only when something bad happens. As a peer educator I try to show them how to protect themselves from infectious diseases, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies." 

Because of the open approach to young people's problems, especially the open attitudes about sex, substance abuse and other topics, and the open way in which they communicate with young people, peer educators and doctors who work in the Youth Counseling Service sometimes meet with condemnation in small communities such as Loznica.

Despite their excellent cooperation with municipal authorities; with many of the principals of primary and secondary schools in the city; and with their supporters in the education and implementation of a number of street actions, a peer educator, Sara Peric, who is 14 years old, says that there are teachers who still believe the Youth Counseling Service is some kind of a cult.

"Some teachers rarely let pupils come to our actions and practices, not only because it happens during classes, but also because they believe that we are some kind of a sect, a cult. They label us, because we need the support of the community" says Sara.

"We are fighting against prejudice. That's why we invite religious teachers to our education lessons and trainings, because they will otherwise condemn us for allegedly disseminating free sexual attitudes. That is why we have an agreement with the directors of schools and local government and therefore we need the broader support of official state institutions" says Doctor Nada Djuric.

During regular counseling activities, when peer educators share packages of leaflets about anti-discrimination, life without drugs, reducing risk to preserve health, it is important to reach the parents of adolescents, because their support is vital during young people's development.

Peer educators in the Youth Counseling Service in Loznica say that there are many parents who are too liberal in their attitude towards children, but they rarely talk with children about their real problems.

Counseling also helps parents and children because, as they say, every cry for help is different.

The day after peer educators threw pamphlets in citizens' mailboxes on how parents can recognize if their child is using psychoactive substances, a lot of parents came to the Youth Counseling Service to further inquire about how to recognize if their child is using drugs.

Prevention is the most important word used in counseling services and doctors and peer educators have been working in this direction for years.

Parents and children from smaller neighboring villages where there are no counseling centres also visit this center in Loznica, mainly after they've found out about the counseling services through the web site, or from those who had a positive experience with the counseling service.

Doctor Djuric says that a young man from Austria addressed the Youth Counseling Service through the web site recently, because he wanted to come to their counseling services in Loznica to be tested, because he had had unprotected sex.

Studies show that young people in Loznica, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, are mostly preoccupied with problems of unemployment, delinquency and crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, lack of support by local government, lack of cultural events and sport activities.

More than one third of young people in Loznica believe they can contribute to solving their problems by active engagement.

Peer educators and their activities through the Youth Counseling Service prove that young people in Loznica are recognized as people who can contribute to positive change in the city.