CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Teaching street children about HIV

Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN
The centre targets vulnerable children
Bangui, 28 December 2006 (PlusNews) - Appalled by the deaths of their friends from AIDS-related infections, the street children of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, did not hesitate when offered the opportunity to learn more about the disease.

"I saw many of my friends die of AIDS - they did not know where to go for treatment because they were street children," said Bienvenu Samba, 25, who has spent 11 years living on the streets. "Many of them were HIV-positive or had sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), like gonorrhoea or syphilis."

The Central African Republic, ravaged by years of civil conflict, is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the United Nations has estimated that 10.7 percent of the country's approximately four million inhabitants are HIV-infected.

According to a 2005 survey by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), about 3,000 children were living on the streets of Bangui, of whom half had lost a parent and more than half were aged between 10 and 14.

UNICEF found that many street children used drugs, and the girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. "The street children are involved in many sexual relationships and there is a great deal of sexual violence, mainly against girls, but also against boys," said Samba, who lost both his parents and survives by doing odd jobs like transporting goods to the market.

For the past five years, Chantal Lagos has been combining the money she earns from doing laundry with donations from UN agencies and her church to feed and support over 100 street children.

"The girls sleep with boys or with soldiers, who give them 150 or 200 francs CFA (US$0.30 to 0.40), or who sometimes take them by force," said Lagos, whom the children call 'Mother Chantal'. "People die of AIDS every day and the street children are getting younger and younger due to the epidemic. Several girls have lost their babies, and this is definitely due to malnutrition and AIDS."

A pilot Centre for Information, Education and Listening (CIEE), which targets vulnerable young people with HIV/AIDS information, opened in Bangui in December 2005 and began recruiting and training peer educators. The initiative is financed by UNICEF and supported by the National HIV/AIDS Committee.

Samba jumped at the opportunity. "I wanted to come and meet other young people and get information on STDs and AIDS, and find out how to support those who are infected," he said.

The trainees completed questionnaires evaluating their own vulnerability to HIV infection. "Of the 330 young people aged 12 to 24 who were involved in the training, almost four out of five had already had sexual intercourse, 43 percent without a condom and 45 percent with multiple partners," said Igor Mathieu Gondje-Dacka, a CIEE team leader.

The trainees also drew up "maps of risk and vulnerability" to help them identify factors that could expose them to HIV and find ways of dealing with the risks. At the end of the training, the participants were offered free HIV tests.

"Before we came here, we didn't know how to protect ourselves, but here at the centre we heard people talk about it, and now we talk about it to others and they listen," said Samba, who knows how to preserve his negative HIV status.

"Some people have decided to use condoms but I am too frightened. Too many [street children] have died," he said. "I want to get married one day, but I'll abstain until then."


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