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Forces of Change
Caribbean Red Cross
societies respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis among the region's youth

by Luke Greeves
New studies estimate that 33.4 million people worldwide are living with HIV or AIDS. More than 90 per cent of all HIV-infected people live in the developing world and over 50 percent of new HIV infections occur in young people between 15 and 24. In the Caribbean, the region which suffers from the second highest rate of infection in the world, the situation is particularly acute among youth.
Youth in the Caribbean today are confronted with numerous challenges and problems that their parents could never have imagined. Decreasing public spending on education and health care, deteriorating traditional Caribbean family structures, severe poverty and constant natural disaster risks as well as the HIV/AIDS epidemic are issues they deal with every day. This gives rise to the region's high rate of school drop-outs, as well as the increase in crime and violence, drug abuse, and unplanned pregnancies among youth. Low literacy levels compound the problem of youth unemployment and low self-esteem. But while today's young people in the Caribbean are exposed to constant threats, they are often neglected by resource-limited governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGO) social programmes and are rarely involved in the design or management of youth-oriented activities.

Young people as a force for change
Building strong organizations with youth leaders, devoting resources to identifying emerging vulnerabilities and providing them with the tools and the skills to design and implement an effective response is at the heart of the new Caribbean Red Cross Youth Development Programme. With major support from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the Norwegian Red Cross and the British government, this major regional initiative is youth driven, youth designed and youth led.

Caribbean Red Cross societies are being assisted by the International Federation's regional delegation in revitalizing and strengthening their Red Cross youth groups to be managed and supported by young people, further promoting their programme's relevance, impact and sustainability.

Most appropriately, leading the Caribbean regional effort is one of the Federation's youngest delegates, 21-year-old regional youth delegate Mark Scott, a former Jamaica Red Cross youth peer educator and national youth officer.

"Young people have the power to create change; change in the behaviour and attitudes of their peers and change in the development of their community," said Scott. "Young people must be considered the key resource in mobilizing an expanded and effective response to address the vulnerabilities that we face. But to get young people to participate means to involve them at all levels, from preparing material to the creation and dissemination of information to their peers, as we are the best hope to bring about a change in our peers' behaviour."

In strengthening the capacity of Red Cross youth, different models for attracting and stimulating members are being explored. Training and informational material is being designed and tested by young people. Youth leadership training and community workshops, including training of trainers, are helping develop skills in young people. The importance of sharing ideas and learning from others is being encouraged through the region's Red Cross Youth Communications Network which includes quarterly newsletters with contributions from youth members and an e-mail news group. A Caribbean youth Internet site and monthly regional television show hosted by the Red Cross are planned for the coming year.
Leading the fight against AIDS
As a priority in the Caribbean, Red Cross HIV/AIDS youth peer education programmes are being established across the region to educate young people and get them involved in the fight against the epidemic. Modelled largely on the successful Jamaica Red Cross Together We CanHIV/AIDS youth peer education programme and other effective youth initiatives in the Caribbean, the regional approach supports a training system built on the belief that (1) youth participation in the design and delivery of their programmes is essential, and (2) young people need life-saving information about HIV/AIDS in order to protect themselves.

Working in groups of two or three, trained Red Cross youth peer educators are organizing HIV and sexually transmitted disease (STD) workshops in their own community, leading candid discussions with other young people about sexuality and other issues threatening their development. The youth are taught the modes of HIV and other STD transmission, high-risk behaviours, the 'ABCs' of prevention - Abstinence, Be faithful, Use Condoms - and promotes self-esteem and the dignity and respect that should be offered to people living with HIV and AIDS.

Maintaining confidentiality and without the presence of parents, teachers or other adults, the young people support each other to become serious in their discussions and open with their emotions. They learn from each other's experiences and understand ways that they can protect themselves and become advocates in promoting truthful and relevant information to their friends.

A Caribbean Red Cross AIDS Network is also being formed to further facilitate the exchange of information and experiences between Red Cross youth leaders as key steps to promoting and safeguarding the future of the region. And a major six-month regional public awareness campaign 'Stop the Ignorance - Join the Red Cross in the Fight against AIDS' was launched in December 1998 on World AIDS Day to provide the public with positive and factual information on HIV/AIDS and prevention, as well as promoting the humanitarian rights of those living with HIV or AIDS.

The Red Cross has also enlisted the support of 1998 Miss Universe, Wendy Fitzwilliam from Trinidad and Tobago, as the first-ever Caribbean Red Cross Ambassador for Youth. As Miss Universe, Ms. Fitzwilliam was outspoken in defending young people, promoting their rights, and calling for new measures to fight the spread of AIDS. She is admired by the young people in her native Caribbean and across the world, and through her role with the Red Cross she is continuing to be a leading voice in promoting young people as a force for change - as leaders, as peer educators and as advocates.

Youth are not the future...but the now
With more than 45 per cent of the world's population under the age of 25, young people are and will continue to be at risk from almost all forms of social, man-made and natural disasters. And because of their vulnerability, young people must be central to any development and prevention programme.

The Movement believes that young people must be given the opportunity to use their enthusiasm and vigour to create change and empowered with the responsibility to lead this dynamic process. With this in mind, the fundamental principle of youth participation and the tremendous influence that young people have on each other are the central themes of the Caribbean Youth Development Programme.

Luke Greeves
Luke Greeves was the Federation development
delegate based in the Caribbean.

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