Learning from youth groups in Ban Pang Lao on AIDS response

Photo by Tom (hmm a rosa tint)When young people get organized at the community level, have an open and fair representation in the ‘youth working group’, have access to information, hold genuine dialogue sessions among themselves and with the grown-ups, and use participatory approaches in their advocacy events on a range of issues around AIDS and risky behaviours that make young people vulnerable to HIV, the AIDS pandemic can be checked.

The visit to Ban Pang Lao community in the northern-most province of Thailand, Chiang Rai, closer to the Myanmar border, as part of the SALT visit facilitated by The Constellation of AIDS Competence, was truly inspiring.

Sustained local responses strengthened by the needed services and supportive policies brought down the HIV prevalence in Thailand from 18% in 1991 to 1.4% by end of 2005 (Source: UNAIDS Report on the global AIDS epidemic 2006). However in this community of Ban Pang Lao, the HIV prevalence remained low even when the country was hard-hit by AIDS in a generalized manner. The credit goes to the local responses undoubtedly.

Ban Pang Lao community began organizing themselves to respond to HIV in April 1994. This was led by two local school teachers Mr Sirin and Ms Sumalee Wanarat. The AIDS Education Programme (AEP), Faculty of Education at Chiang Mai University, provided technical support to Sirin and Sumalee as they initiated to develop a community-based prevention and care model for people living with HIV with a particular focus on mobilizing young people and community leaders.

In 1994, AIDS was still in the shadows in Chiang Rai. Thankfully the community responses in Chiang Rai started gaining strength before AIDS had worst hit the country later. Although communities around Ban Pang Lao were struggling to deal with treatment, care and support services for people living with HIV in 1994, there wasn’t a single person living with HIV in Ban Pang Lao. The foresight of Sirin and Sumalee could see the threat AIDS posed, especially to the young people, and had therefore began working on the much-needed community-preparedness to build an effective AIDS response.

Ban Pang Lao community spreads over 23 villages. Young people in every village were mobilized to elect two representatives to the youth working group. These two youth representatives elected from every village, took leadership not only in working on an ongoing basis with youth in their respective village but also to participate at the community-level advocacy initiatives regularly. It is amazing to note how these young people can manage a fair and open representation process in every village and provide many opportunities to un-learn for us ‘grown-ups’.

The young people had regular discussions on a range of issues including those on sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS. During an informal interaction with the young people from this community, they did share culturally it was inappropriate (and still is) to talk openly about sex and sexuality issues with their parents, however they feel more comfortable to talk to their school teachers and fellow youth. They did face resistance from some of the youth in their community who was reluctant to join them in their fight against AIDS. The youth of this community felt that these youth were indulging in risky behaviours and needed help. In such circumstance they try to approach the youth-gang leader to convince on the need to come together for their own benefit and inherent interest.

Interestingly the visitors from different Asian and European countries shared that there wasn’t any similar youth support programmes in their own nations to provide information and support on sex, sexuality and/or HIV/AIDS issues to young people. The manner in which the young people in Ban Pang Lao community have organized themselves to improve the AIDS response is certainly inspiring. For instance in India, many states are still considering a ban on sex education in schools. The young people in this small community in northern-most part of Thailand are certainly way ahead and have lot of lessons for other AIDS programmes in the region.

They have been using participatory theatre, music and traditional folk dance performances on themes around HIV prevention, care and support to raise more awareness and understanding of key issues in the community. They also use this opportunity to link with the adults or grown ups.

It is also interesting how the young people write their own ‘proposals’ to raise financial resources at provincial level to meet the costs of the performances or advocacy events. To see a good financial management capacity in these young people from the villages of Ban Pang Lao is indeed interesting to note. This also speaks volumes on sustainability of local responses.?

Bobby Ramakant-CNS