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Positive Peer pressure

Giving in to group pressure can be a good thing, according to youth volunteers worldwide who use peer education to change behaviour for good.

WE have all been there, seen it, felt it, the intense pressure that a group can impose on individuals to think and act in certain ways. Peer pressure is often negative — the pressure to wear certain clothes, listen to certain music, engage in certain sexual behaviour, do certain drugs, or adopt certain beliefs. However, as millions of Red Cross and Red Crescent youth volunteers will tell you, sometimes it is OK to give in to pressure and follow your peers.

“It is a great feeling of satisfaction to know that the youth in my community are changing their behaviour,” says Ana File, 22, a Cook Islands Red Cross Society youth volunteer who has been working to influence her peers for seven years through an HIV/AIDS peer education prevention programme.

“A few years ago, it was unheard of to distribute condoms, and if you were seen holding one, it was only for a joke,” she says. “Now, I am constantly asked for condoms and, recently, 1,000 were distributed in just one night. Knowing that we’re making local youth more aware makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

The programme in Cook Islands is one of many examples of successful peer pressure. Julie Hoare, senior HIV/AIDS prevention officer at the International Federation, says many National Societies run youth peer education programmes. They are probably the most commonly used approach to HIV prevention in the International Federation.

“Peer education can be used to reinforce school-based curriculum programmes or to reach more vulnerable youth subgroups,” she says.

“Young people are more easily influenced by their peers than other age groups. They understand each other and speak the same language. This can be channelled in a positive way through peer education. It’s very important to involve young people in programme planning and design, as well as implementation.”

Shared success

Youth peer education draws on the credibility that young people have with their peers. Research suggests that if people believe the messenger is similar to them, they are more likely to personalize messages and, with support, change their attitudes and behaviours. Peer education works because educators identify with their peers, communicate more easily and understand their behaviour. Furthermore, behaviour change among marginalized or vulnerable groups is more effective when done by their peers.

Peers create a more comfortable environment for questions and discussions. In Armenia, Red Cross youth peer educators often receive requests from adults, such as parents, teachers and priests, to join their sessions, but the answer is always the same. One of the volunteers, Tatevik Ambardzymyan, 21, firmly explains that adults can only attend the first, general session of the Armenian Red Cross Society HIV/AIDS peer education programme.

“Without the adults around, the teenagers are more open, they ask questions and listen eagerly to the information we provide them. And that’s what it’s all about,” she says. “We just have to give the adults this information later, since they find it so interesting,” she adds with a smile.

Global reach

In the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, youth peer education is employed in a variety of programmes. In addition to HIV prevention and sexual health, it is used to address stigma and discrimination, prevent substance abuse, teach about land mines and road accidents, human trafficking and violence, encourage healthy living and environmental protection, and promote voluntary blood donation, to mention some examples. The methodology works in many areas and is equally effective in all parts of the world. Peer education avoids many issues related to cultural differences, as the peer educators by definition share the same background as the young people they work with. They are effective and credible because they have inside knowledge of their audience and use appropriate language and terminology.

In Honduras, Red Cross youth volunteers are trying to reduce the impact of juvenile violence through peer education programmes that aim to rehabilitate young people most at risk including drug addicts and street children, and reduce gang mentality. In Bulgaria and in several central European countries, peer education is the method of choice to combat and prevent human trafficking, as youth volunteers work in schools to make young people realize that it could happen to anyone. And in Lebanon, many young people get their first chance to discuss sexual health and prevention through the HIV prevention programme.

“I had some information from my fiancé, but today was the first time I ever saw a condom and learned how to use it,” says Itaf, a 22-year-old psychology student who participated in a peer education session with the Lebanese Red Cross youth section. “It’s not common to discuss these issues in school or at home, and there’s a lot of information we need to know. Sex is usually presented as a scientific subject and nothing is taught about the practice,” she explains.

Many youth programmes simultaneously employ several methods to reach their goals. In the Save-a-Mate (SAM) youth programme run by the Australian Red Cross, youth volunteers give first aid and advice at events where young people consume drugs or alcohol and they conduct peer education on the dangers of substance abuse. The programme also conducts first-aid training for young people in general and the staff of pubs, clubs and venues in particular. Building the capacity to deal with emergencies among staff in nightclubs and other venues popular among youth, SAM saves lives that could be lost to substance abuse. The awareness campaigns include posters and displays in public places and venues. SAM volunteers reach their peers and build a culture of empathy and caring.

Direct benefits

In addition to empowering their peers, the peer educators also benefit directly from their work. They learn important skills related to designing and delivering effective presentations or workshops. More importantly, they learn to make decisions, master information relevant to their own lives and are recognized as leaders by their community, thus committing to responsible behaviour.

Dmitry Strizhak, 18, a Kazakh Red Crescent Society youth volunteer, says he has gained a lot from volunteering. He has made a lot of friends and learned how easy it is to help others. “Working for the Red Crescent I realized how much we can do,” he says. “It can be a visit to a lonely elderly neighbour or a meeting with mates to share knowledge about HIV prevention. As soon as I joined the Red Crescent I discovered that it’s not difficult to make a difference for people. All that is required is good will.”



Norwegian Red Cross volunteers spread safer sex messages through Active Choice, a programme they run in schools and youth clubs.


























Volunteers in Australia’s Save-a-Mate programme meet their peers at nightclubs, on beaches and at other hangouts for young people.

Åsta Ytre
Åsta Ytre is International Federation youth communication officer.




Judge or teach?

Ukraine is facing a steady increase in drug use and HIV infections. For decades students have been given lessons about these dangers in school, in the belief that education alone can change behaviour. Statistics prove this strategy wrong, says Oksana Shved, head of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society’s information and communications department.

“In Ukraine, injecting drug use remains a taboo theme,” Shved says. “Ordinary people continue to live in an atmosphere of passivity, refusing to notice those who are in trouble.”

Stanislav, a former drug user and now a Ukrainian Red Cross peer educator, can testify to this lack of understanding. “There is a common opinion that drug addiction is a disease caused by trouble and ill-being,” he says. “My teachers, who always recognized me as a happy, promising and active student, refused to believe that I was addicted to drugs, until one day I packed my things and went to a rehabilitation centre.”

The Ukrainian Red Cross’s peer education programme complements classroom teaching, adding an interactive and participatory element.

After completing his rehabilitation, Stanislav decided to become involved in peer education.
For him, this was also part of his therapy. In addition to peer education sessions with schoolchildren and students, he acts in educational dramas. He is HIV-positive and openly talks about his situation to help his peers. “Although my diagnosis should be kept confidential, I come to the class and reveal my face so AIDS does not enter their lives,” he says.

“It is sad that many people judge HIV-positive people as complete scoundrels, who were punished by fate for their sins,” Stanislav continues. “Within my daily work I want to prove that this is not true, that I am an active member of Ukrainian society.”

In addition to peer education, the Ukrainian Red Cross Society cares for drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS by offering syringe exchanges and social support.


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