Ethiopian Youth in Charge of Their AIDS Understanding
April 20, 2007, Saisie, Ethiopia —
Before taking part in an open education forum at her school in the small Ethiopian village of Saisie, Azeb Asefa thought that HIV was a disease that only affected people living in the main town.
"I was not aware that everyone could get HIV and AIDS even though I knew it was a killer disease without a cure," says the eighth grader.
Azeb Asefa participated in In Charge! at her school.
Azeb is shy by nature. Plus, in the culture of her community, open expression or questioning by children is regarded as undisciplined.
But while children here are encouraged to maintain a quiet reserve, their home lives and communities are being sorely affected by HIV and AIDS.
In an effort to build greater awareness and create a discussion forum around issues such as sexuality, HIV and AIDS and methods of prevention, CRS Ethiopia has helped implement the In Charge! project in 34 anti-AIDS community centers and 38 Catholic schools, including the Miriam Stion secondary school, which Azebs attends.
"I have realized HIV and AIDS is a big issue," says Azeb, who is one of 200 students at her school who participated in the project. "Previously, even though I was getting information from my teachers in the school, it was not really helping me enough to create power in me to speak out and to identify my problems and the problems of my classmates," she relates.
Learning to 'Speak Out'
In Charge! was developed in November 2005 as part of CRS Ethiopia's larger youth initiative: Healthy Choices for Youth, "Avoiding Risk, Affirming Life" project.
The In Charge! project targets youth and young adults between the ages of 15 and 29. Youngsters at schools and community centers gather in groups at tables and discuss pictures and illustrations that show examples of risky behavior associated with HIV and AIDS.
On a routine visit to the Hosanna Catholic Secretariat, one of the primary schools using In Charge!, Sister Dinknesh Gurmessa went into a classroom where a group of boys were being disruptive during a class discussion.
"I called four of them out and talked to them saying: 'We came a long way just for you. We love you. That is why we are here today. I know that you are very good students and could be leaders of your school and even leaders of our nation. You are the future of the country — we rely on you,'" Sister Dinknesh recounted.
The boys then promised not to disturb the session anymore, returned to their classroom and later became leaders of the discussion forum.
"I could see a radical change," says Sister Dinknesh. "They started participating, sharing their beautiful ideas and initiating others to share."
Thus far, the project has reached nearly 8,500 young people directly and an estimated 34,700 indirectly. An In Charge! session takes about 4 to 5 hours to complete. Youth who have participated say that it creates a level of discussion and interest in the group that they never experienced before then.
"They enjoy the participation, find that time passes quickly and feel they now have a much better understanding of the reality of HIV and AIDS and how to protect themselves," says one project observer, noting that some participates have gone on to be tested for HIV.
Azeb excitedly shares how the project has helped boost her own understanding of issues.
"I am now really happy, I am not shy and I can really speak out about any issue, especially about HIV and AIDS, openly and loudly," she says. "I really believe that I can protect my self from HIV and AIDS and even I can help others."