Friday, June 23, 2006

Youth approach to HIV pandemic

NST: Creative approaches are urgently needed to tackle the global HIV/AIDS emergency. At the Sixth Meeting of Commonwealth Youth Ministers in The Bahamas recently, Ministers and youth workers told SANTHA OORJITHAM how they are tackling the pandemic.
BAHAMIAN teenager Bodine Johnson performs a hair-raising shirt drama, My Name is AIDS, in Nassau to drive home her message. In Trinidad and Tobago, Mobafa Baker hopes to recruit football players from the country's World Cup team as HIV/AIDS "warriors".
And in Malaysia, Hafizi Harun’s band reaches out to teenagers and Mat Rempit (motorcycle racers) who hang around Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, through rock music.
They are all using creative approaches to spread positive messages on healthy living and HIV/AIDS among the youth. And that’s just what the Sixth Meeting of Commonwealth Youth Ministers in The Bahamas recently is urging member countries to do.
Every day, over 14,000 people are infected with HIV/AIDS. More than half of them are young people living in the 53 Commonwealth countries. Young women are three times more likely to be infected than young men.
To tackle this "global emergency", Commonwealth Ministers in their communiqué called for "youth-centred approaches" and a focus on life skills, lifestyles and behaviour change.
The ministers and national youth representatives at the gathering shared their experiences tackling the deadly virus.
In her speech, and in a booklet which she passed around to delegates, Minister of Youth and Sports Datuk Azalina Othman Said focused on the "Youth Against Drugs" campaign, noting that 76 per cent of HIV/AIDS cases in Malaysia were intravenous drug users. She explained that youth, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and tertiary education institutions worked together to create awareness of the dangers of drug abuse and the challenges of HIV/AIDS for young people.
Sports was one of the creative approaches recommended at the gathering, to provide positive role models, break down barriers through teamwork and to educate young people about HIV/AIDS in communities which were difficult to reach.
Azalina pointed out that the National Fitness Council — a collaboration between her ministry, the Ministries of Health and Local Government and the Department of National Unity in the Prime Minister’s Department — had been using sports to promote a positive lifestyle for the past two years. Her counterpart in The Bahamas, Neville Wisdom, often used the example of two young women athletes who were offered full scholarships by an American university.
"One, Eldece Clarke-Lewis, chose to go. She made the right choice and ended up an Olympic sprint medallist."
The other, says the Minister of Youth, Sports and Housing, decided not to go: "She ended up hanging around in the wrong circles, contracting AIDS and dying shortly after. That easily demonstrates what sports can and should do to encourage young people into healthy lifestyles and to take advantage of productive opportunities."
Music is another language that can reach the youth. Persatuan Pengasih Malaysia, run exclusively by former drug users, has set up a band that performs across the country. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, 28-year-old training manager Hafizi has performed at teenage hangouts such as Central Market, Bintang Walk and Tasik Titiwangsa.
"We play rock and alternative music," explains the Young Ambassador for Positive Living under the Commonwealth Youth Programme. "Between songs, the band members share their experiences and disseminate information about HIV/AIDS."
Over in Nassau, 23-year-old Young Ambassador for Positive Living Keith Kemp says such life skills should include budgeting and family planning. The voluntary counsellor and testing trainer for Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training also recommends part-time jobs and internships: "I applaud the requirement here that before you graduate from high school you must have 40 hours’ work experience."
Baker, the new chairman of the Pan-Commonwealth Youth Caucus and Sub-Regional HIV/AIDS Officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Port of Spain, welcomes the call for youth-centred approaches.
Baker also talks about HIV/AIDS and other social issues on the Chat Room radio talk show that he hosts.
Health services should offer a lot of counselling and guidance for youth, urges Johnah Josiah, Kenya’s national youth representative to the meeting in The Bahamas and programme director of the International Youth Development Network. But many don’t have a "youth touch".
"When youth come in with STI and opportunistic infections such as HIV/AIDS, people victimise them with their questions, as if they had committed a crime," says the youth consultant for UN Habitat. "But if the counsellor is close to your age, you can open up."

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