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Love, condoms and youth in Central America
In July MS's Aids advisor Kirsten Madsen organised a workshop in Guatemala. Here follows impressions from the workshop.
Luis and Violeta at the workshop.
02. July 2005
One Sunday morning in July, 20 young Guatemalans from ACJ (YMCA /YWCA) met to learn about Hiv and Aids. Many of them had previously attended workshops on the issue, bot not with the Danish woman Kirsten Madsen, the MS itinerant aids advisor. For four hours the room were filled with facts and opinions, and everything from technical explanations about transmission and pregnancy to discrimination and sexual and reproductive rights was discussed.
A questionnaire reveals diversity of attitudes to hiv and sexuality, and discussions centre on whether people infected with hiv have a right to lead sex lives just like anyone else. A few people sustain that people with hiv would hardly be lucky enough to find a partner, although most express the sentiment that Hiv-positive people have a right to lead normal lives – in respect for themselves and others.
Women more vulnerable than men
During the workshop, mention is made of the fact that women, for reasons to do with their physiology, run a higher risk of infection when engaging in unprotected sex. This piece of information provokes a great deal of frowning, and 24-year-old Luis asks to speak - ’It may be that women in a biological sense are more vulnerable to infection but based on that one should not conclude that as a man one is less vulnerable and just let loose!’
Luis: I would prefer time spent in school on decent sex education.
Another participant brings up a tale of a foreign Hiv-positive woman who allegedly infected a young Guatemalan man in despair over her own situation. Silence fills the room. But then a young woman takes over and says that it must be a tale, as no one has ever heard that kind of thing directly from the source. And that notwithstanding the existence of such people the conclusion should be to always protect oneself.
The Cynical Love of the Pope
To 20-year-old Violeta, the Catholic Church is a stumbling block in the fight against Aids, and she is not impressed with the Pope. ’How can you take seriously his message of love when at the same time he is spreading lies about condoms? Does he not get that people are dying of a disease that can be prevented through using a tiny bit of rubber? Does he not care about the orphans resulting from Aids?’
Religion is a bad point of departure when you talk about the body and sexuality. Violeta goes on to tell about her own education in which anything to do with bodily functions was banned from the lesson plan. At home with her sisters things aren’t going too well, either. When the little boys have a bath they are simply told to wash themselves really well ’down there’. They grow without knowing that they pee with a penis. It is called anything but its proper name.
When she herself grew up she was told to ’be careful’ when she first started menstruating. And so on and so on. Sex education is the same as Chinese to most young people growing up in Guatemala. ’And as if that was not enough’, says Luis, ’some schools have Egyptian hieroglyphs on the lesson plan. The use of those? To learn them by heart! But for whose benefit? I would prefer that the time was spent on decent sex education.’
MS and young leaders
Luis and Violeta are boyfriend and girlfriend. They live in the neighbourhood Milagros (The Miracles) on the outskirts of Guatemala City where they have brought together a small group of young people to talk about different issues, such as Hiv and Aids. ’The boys have always played football, but the girls have not really had any reason to gather. Often people get a bit shy when we ask them to show up if they do not know exactly what will go on,’ they both agree.
However, they don’t think that they have changed their sexual behaviour after becoming aware of hiv and aids. ’We use condoms, but more than anything to avoid pregnancy’.
Like Violeta, Luis has a small red ribbon on his T-shirt. The T-shirt itself reads ’Jovenes en lucha por otro mundo posible’ – ’young people fighting for a better, possible world.’ This is precisely the kind of spin-off that MS is seeking through its work with youth in ACJ: to build the capacity of young leaders so that they in turn may lead other young people towards a positive social development.
The Director of ACJ in Guatemala, Carlos Amezquita, stressed during the workshop that Hiv and Aids must not be considered an isolated theme. He said that to a great extent Aids has relation to international trade as it depends on the eventual ratification of the Central America free trade agreement with the US whether and when Guatemalans will have access to low-cost, generic medicine. The free trade agreement is another of the many issues dealt with by the young people in ACJ.
ACJ in Guatemala works with young people in 14 municipalities in rural areas and marginal urban neigbourhoods to strengthen a network of volunteers with leadership potential who can exert a positive influence on the country’s social and political development. In the youth camp Chichoj in San Cristobal, Alta Verapaz – in the middle of the country – Spanish MS development worker Nuria Gatell works with a group of 30 young people.
First Hiv/Aids prevention programme
According to a preliminary evaluation of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, the first Hiv/Aids prevention programme was mounted in Guatemala in 1991. Only in 2000 legislation on Aids was passed, and in 2001 for the first time funds were set aside on the national budget specifically towards fighting Hiv and Aids. (UNDP 2003).