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KYRGYZSTAN: HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns gain popularity among youth in the south

Photo: Aida Aidakieva/IRIN
Breaking taboos around condoms - one of a number of awareness-raising activities among youth, a highly vulnerable group to HIV/AIDS
OSH, 10 May 2006 (PlusNews) - HIV/AIDS awareness raising campaigns targeting youth are gaining momentum in southern Kyrgyzstan, a region that has more than half of the country’s registered HIV cases.

HIV/AIDS has been on the rise in the Central Asian country since 2001, with the situation particularly acute in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad.

Some 270 people have been officially registered with HIV/AIDS in the city of Osh, capital of the province with the same name and the second largest city in the country.

About 80 new cases are detected each year in Osh. These come to light during medical examinations of patients at tuberculosis prophylactic centres, in prisons and also among those who voluntarily come to the HIV testing and counselling facilities. However, experts claim that the real figure is about 10 times the official number.

Injecting drug use is the main mode of transmission, accounting for more than 90 percent of registered cases. Around 85 percent of people living with HIV in the region are young people between 18 and 35, of whom 10 percent are women.

The region is located on a major drug-trafficking route: heroin goes from Afghanistan through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and on to Russia and Western Europe.

With Osh being a major transit hub in the area, Afghan heroin is easily available. “The market is filled up with accessible and cheap drugs. There are many special spots in Osh where one can buy a dose of heroin for about 100 som [US $2.50],” one local resident said.

The unofficial number of drug addicts in Osh is estimated to be around 12,000. With most of them under 35, officials are warning that the virus is entering the general population when infected addicts have unprotected sex.

“Since 2003, the tendency has been for the virus to spread more rapidly through sexual intercourse, making everyone vulnerable,” Fatima Koshokova, Director of the Rainbow Information Centre, a local NGO working on HIV/AIDS prevention, said.

Jarkyn Jusuev, deputy head of the provincial HIV/AIDS centre in Osh, confirmed that the rate of new infections through sexual intercourse was increasing every year.

“Currently 8 percent of new registered cases are through sexual intercourse, while just a few years year ago it was less then 2 percent. This is a big concern for us,” Jusuev conceded.

The problem is aggravated by a lack of sexual and reproductive health education for young people. During Soviet times sexual education was limited to a few chapters on human anatomy at high schools.

Talking about sex and sexual education remains a taboo in the traditional south, even though teenagers are sexually active quite early, local experts say.

“There is a widely held prejudice that sexual education can have a negative influence on morals and the behaviour of young people,” a study conducted by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 2003, said.

The only textbook with some information on sexual education was recalled from all school libraries in the country three years ago as it was deemed too permissive.

Religious leaders and conservative activists condemned the chapters on sexual education, which, in their opinion, presented relations between men and women in a way which were against the “mentality and traditions of Kyrgyz people” and were teaching children “sexual relations, which are taboo”.

Teenagers tend to get scanty informal knowledge about sex on the streets. “They get information about sex from their friends, usually in a perverted and negative form,” explained Feruza Amadalieva, a teacher in a school in Osh for 15 years.

She gave an example of poor levels of awareness among some adolescents. “When one of our girls got a period she became very upset because she thought something was terribly wrong with her. No one ever told her it’s normal,” the teacher said.

In an effort to tackle the issue, the Rainbow Centre, financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), has been working in Osh since 1997 to raise awareness among young people about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and to promote a healthy lifestyle among the group.

A typical Rainbow seminar includes interactive games and competitions where students learn as they play. Teachers are usually asked to leave the room in order to create a more open and friendly environment.

“We are trying to make the information less trivial, for example, by telling history of condoms, explaining that they were used since ancient times. We also want to make it fashionable to use them,” Dilshad Atabaev, 24, a coordinator of the Rainbow Centre, said.

“The first time it was shocking. Our mentality and traditions do not allow us to discuss such things openly. But after a while the barrier started to fade away and now we talk about it with classmates,” one of the students who attended Rainbow seminars told IRIN.

The centre recruits volunteers within schools to disseminate information among their classmates. However, it can be a challenge to discuss safe sex and reproductive health in rural areas.

“When I show them a condom in class, they just close their eyes. They are shy and feel very embarrassed,” one of the volunteers said.

In addition to regular workshops and field trips to schools in remote parts of the region, Rainbow publishes its own monthly newspaper, booklets, organises media campaigns, summer camps, and popular events such as hip-hop, body art, graffiti or bikers festivals to boost the levels of awareness among youth and get the healthy lifestyle message across.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Prevention - PlusNews


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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