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REASONS:

YOUTH and HIV/AIDS

Many people are unaware that the Caribbean has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS outside of sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS is currently the leading cause of death for 15-45 year-olds in the Caribbean. The majority contracted HIV when they were teenagers.

The United Nations informs us that "...the vast majority of the world's young people have no idea how HIV/AIDS is transmitted or how to protect themselves from the disease." In a regional survey conducted by the Latin American and Caribbean office of UNICEF, one in three youth respondents claimed to have little or no information about sex education or AIDS, with lower income and rural groups reporting even higher levels of feeling uninformed.

"...Young people are at the centre of the HIV/AIDS epidemic," says Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "They are both the hardest hit by the disease and also the key to overcoming it. Yet despite this, strategies for responding to the epidemic generally disregard young people."
There is plenty of factual information out in the world about how to prevent the spread of HIV. So what's the problem? Why isn't this information getting through to young people in the Caribbean?

Dr. Stephen King, a pathologist and St. Lucia's Chief Medical Officer, has an intimate knowledge of how HIV/AIDS affects people in his country. He offers a precise list of reasons to explain the spread of the pandemic -- these are not the black and white clinical reasons you might expect to hear from a doctor. When asked about the root causes behind the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, Dr. King cites: cultural taboos, stigma and discrimination, dysfunctional gender relations, poverty, and lack of life-skills education.
"Just knowing about HIV/AIDS is not sufficient to change the way we behave," explains Hortense, a teenager in Africa. "There is another factor: POWER. AIDS preys most on those who lack power..."
What does this mean exactly? What is the connection between power and the AIDS pandemic? Well, it's one thing to have access to accurate information about HIV/AIDS -- especially in a community where there may be stigma that prevents any discussion of the topic. It's another thing entirely to have the power to apply information about preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. We can teach youth the simple ABC's of HIV prevention: Abstain, Be Faithful, Use a Condom. But if youth are not empowered to apply the ABC's in their own lives, the problems will only worsen.
"HIV/AIDS is a crisis," Dr. King notes, "but it's also a challenge and an opportunity."
Breaking the Silence works to address the spread of HIV/AIDS among youth in the Caribbean by offering solutions to root causes of the problem. Our prevention strategies attempt to change the way that information about HIV/AIDS reaches young people by putting youth in charge of the dialogue. Breaking the Silence also uses mass media very strategically to amplify youth voices in the broader community. But most importantly, Breaking the Silence goes one step further -- empowering youth to act on information about HIV/AIDS by helping them develop key skills that support behavior change.

We've looked at studies from around the world that describe what works best in creating behavior change among young people and we've taken a few notes. For example, we know that:
  • When a young person learns how to have an open dialogue about sexuality, s/he develops self-confidence, becomes more aware of his/her core values, practices invaluable relationship skills, and discovers how to access further knowledge about sexual health.

  • When a young person learns how to respond to peer pressure and how to recognize risk factors for HIV, s/he can also decide how to make healthy choices about his or her future.

  • When a young person practices scripting, storyboarding, using video equipment, and directing a crew, s/he practices creative self-expression, important leadership skills, and essential job skills -- teamwork, decision-making, critical thinking, project management, and problem solving. These skills are the basis for social and economic independence.

  • When a young person learns how to present his or her knowledge to others through peer leadership presentations, s/he is practicing an ethic of civic duty and creating an educated and empowered community. S/he learns the power of having a voice.
  • "Young people have unquestionably demonstrated that they are capable of making responsible choices when provided support," notes Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO, "and they can motivate others to make safe choices."

    Thus, the mission of Breaking the Silence is to promote the proactive participation of youth in ending the silence, stigma, and spread of HIV/AIDS.

    We know that community-based prevention programs incorporating life skills training, youth empowerment, peer leadership and targeted media messages have repeatedly proven to be extremely effective AND cost-efficient in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Nevertheless, there is a shortage of programs translating this wisdom into action. Breaking the Silence exists to fulfill this need.

    Addressing the the spread of HIV/AIDS among youth begins with education and empowerment.

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