“The experience is unforgettable…each time I find myself facing a new group, I am proud.” Daniel Chavarria, age 18.
More than 50 graduates of AID FOR AIDS’ “Cuanto Sabes?” adolescent HIV preventive education program met in Panama in late November to share their experiences in bringing HIV awareness to their peers across the country.
These young peer educators, or “multiplying agents,” are among the nearly 400 Panamanian adolescents trained by the office of AID FOR AIDS Panama in “Cuanto Sabes?”, since the program’s first implementation in Panama back in 2006. Over that period, they have managed to replicate the HIV prevention message among tens of thousands of adolescents in schools and community organizations. Support for their activities has come from international organizations and national governmental bodies, including UNESCO, the Office of the Panamanian First Lady and the Ministry of Social Development.
Discussion at the November conference focused on both the rewards and the challenges of educating young people about HIV, and covered a wide range of topics, including the environment, human rights issues, LGBT youth, indigenous cooperatives and serving people of African descent.
The peer educators universally described their experience in the program – as students and multipliers – as tremendously gratifying.
“I would not trade this for anything in the world,” noted 19 year-old Jorge Alberto Quiroz. Added Michelle Lisa Bandel, a 17 year-old “Cuanto Sabes?” graduate, “I feel like I have developed as person. I have met and conversed with other young people (with whom) I might never have shared.”
The conference, however, also addressed some of the problems facing the program, including changes in Ministry of Education policies since 2009 that have made it much more difficult for adolescents to get access to comprehensive sexuality education. Such education is critical to their ability to make healthy decisions that will keep them free of HIV infection. More specifically, recent regulations restrict the teaching of sex education in government schools, which has caused AFA Panama to shift its strategy away from schools toward community and civic organizations.
Moreover, the multiplying agents as a group lamented the continuing failure of the nation as a whole to recognize the importance of sex education or to come to grips with the stigma and discrimination faced by people with HIV or AIDS.
“There are many parents who do not speak of sex in their homes because they see it as wrong,” said Daniel Chavarria. “Young people get answers (at home) that are not the best.” Jorge Alberto Quiroz cited the need to change the mentality of the country’s authority figures. Teachers, he added, know what information students need to have, but out of fear are forced to pass it on to their students in secret.
But, despite these formidable obstacles, the overall tone of the Panama meeting was one of hope and fundamental belief in the power of information to save lives and prevent heartbreak.
“Provide the knowledge that young people need”, concludes 21 year-old facilitator agent Catherine Quintero, and you will see “decreased incidence of HIV, and fewer unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases. We, young people, can then make decisions about our sexuality in a responsible manner.”