Responding to the alarm: HIV/AIDS and youth by Achal Prabhala
Stabroek News
February 2, 2003

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On December 6, 2002 (and just a short while after World AIDS Day), a diverse group of government departments and agencies, NGOs and community organizations organized a Youth Fair at the National Park in Georgetown. Seventeen local schools were invited, and over 800 students showed up. The focus of the fair was HIV/AIDS awareness. Specifically, the programmes and activities were designed to address issues of stigma and discrimination. Partnering in this effort initiated by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) were several Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS), the Ministries of Health, Education, and Youth, Culture & Sports, and the Guyana Council of Churches. Over the course of a hectic day - where students participated in workshops, walked through interactive galleries and watched live performances - a survey was handed out.

Aside from government participation, the NGOs and agencies in attendance were AGEM (Association of Guyanese Environmental Media), Guyana Red Cross Society, GRPA, GUYBERNET, Lifeline Counseling Service, Eureka Laboratory, Linden Care Foundation, Comforting Heart Foundation, IDEAS Foundation, Varqa Foundation, Youth Challenge Guyana and Volunteer Youth Corps.

About 600 students responded. The results, just tabulated, offer piercing insights into the state of Guyana's youth with respect to HIV and AIDS. For instance, 25% of all girls surveyed and 30% of all the boys still don't have the right information on HIV/AIDS. Consistently - across a range of schools in Georgetown, government-run and private, elite and non-elite - girls in general have a slightly higher awareness than boys of how HIV infection is transmitted.

More consequential perhaps, are results of the 'Denial Indicator' - an index put together from questions that test a student's personal denial of the HIV/AIDS problem. In some of the country's best schools, there is a shocking gap in the denial between boys and girls. In one instance, while only 8% of the girls from one school are indicated to be in denial, the corresponding figure for boys from the same school is a whopping 25%. Also surprising is that non-elite government schools tend to have a far more equitable response between their boys and girls, while boys from higher-end schools tend to be far more in denial than girls from the same schools.

What is heartening though, is that indicators for whether students have a positive attitude towards people living with HIV/AIDS are great: across all schools surveyed, a consistently high figure ((80-90%) have the right idea. Is the problem of stigma and discrimination then, more of an adult problem?

"The Youth Fair shows that people can work together if there is a sense of ownership and a common purpose," says Dr Gururaja, Assistant Representative, UNICEF Guyana, emphasizing that the novelty of this event lay not only in the collective ownership but also in the innovative, 'out of the box' communication methods employed. These ranged from music, to plays, to dances and workshops, a far cry from traditionally top-down 'educational' methods of communicating to children. The representative committee that put together this fair is now looking at moving it out, first to Regions 6 & 10 and then even beyond. At the event Ministers Leslie Ramsammy and Gail Teixeira expressed their support for running this fair - and others like it - again.

Much of the international aid that intervenes in this area goes towards funding the work of NGOs. There is almost universal consensus on the potential dynamism of civil society; and no one would agree more than the thousands of young employees, volunteers, advocates and affiliates of these important civil institutions.

While much good work in HIV/AIDS is being carried out in Georgetown, equally excellent work is being organized in the regions. So, for instance, while the Varqa Foundation is based in Georgetown, its core constituency consists of youth literally from all over Guyana. The model it uses, of training trainers and having them go out and do their own thing, is a dominant form of community mobilization. So while the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association mainly works in Georgetown, it employs a similar army of trained peer helpers. Youth Challenge Guyana on the other hand, actively participates and runs programmes in all regions. Mobilizing youth groups, through an elaborate system of peer representation, they are able to effectively harness the power of student communities - even in places as far-flung as Port Kaituma, where they are able to carry out important work with Amerindian peoples.

Closer up on the coast, the St Francis Xavier Community Developers are rapidly creating, growing and expanding their youth resource centres in Berbice and the Corentyne. Creating spaces for young people to exercise, meet, play and even learn in might seem like an elementary idea, but it takes a lot to make that happen. Sometimes, in the case of Linden Care Foundation, a tight focus on HIV/AIDS enables the organization to deliver care and support to a stricken community which needs everything it can get. In parallel, by co-opting an energetic bunch of committed young people, they are able to tell it like it is.

From Essequibo to Berbice and beyond, these exciting models of community mobilization have acknowledged what many others do not necessarily realize as yet: that Guyana's young people are their own best hope.

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