News

Peer Educators Network Works to Prevent Spread of HIV/AIDS Among Youth in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

1 August 2004
Author: UNFPA

Her friends call her Natalia, but it’s not her real name. This 20-year-old blonde from St. Petersburg, the Russian Federation, was diagnosed HIV positive a year ago. Natalia claims her stepfather forced her to have sex with him. “I was only 15 at the time and knew nothing of men or my own body,” she says with resignation. “When my mother found out about it, she blamed me and threw me out of the house. I lived on the street for a year before getting help through a hotline, set up by a local NGO.” During that time, she had unprotected sex with a number of men “in order to survive.”

Peer educators design appropriate messages on adolescent reproductive and sexual health.

Natalia didn’t know that the NGO was part of an innovative UNFPA-led partnership aimed at improving adolescent sexual and reproductive health in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “It’s too late for me,” she sighs, “ but others can be saved from my fate thanks to the work being done by the peer education network. It has made a real difference in the lives of young people here.”

 

HIV infection rates are rising faster in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia than anywhere else in the world. In 2003, there were 230,000 new infections in the region, bringing the total number of people living with HIV to 1.5 million. The worst-affected countries are the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the Baltic States. Worldwide, about half of the 5 million new HIV infections every year occur to young people aged 15-24.

Increased awareness of how to avoid HIV infection and promotion of behaviour change are crucial steps in reversing the epidemic. UNPFA and its partners have worked to build the capacity of national non-governmental organizations and government agencies to implement, supervise, monitor and evaluate peer education programmes for young people in the region. The project, which began in the second half of 2000, emphasizes training of trainers along with the development of special education and communication tools.

" The peer education network established by UNFPA has allowed us to influence and change behaviour. We cover many topics related to reproductive and sexual health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS and STIs, sexual abuse and violence against women and girls. "

--Peer educator

One of the project’s main achievements has been the establishment of the Youth Peer Education Electronic Resource network, or Y-PEER. As of April 2004, Y-PEER linked close to 1,100 members from 27 countries, and it continues to grow every month as more peer educators join.

“The project has two main objectives,” says Aleksander Bodiroza, a New York-based UNFPA specialist on adolescent reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. “The first is to increase the capacity of local and national NGOs to implement peer education programmes with a focus on promoting safe sexual behaviour among adolescents, and the second is to strengthen sexuality education programmes in the region by collaborating with other ongoing initiatives.”

The majority of new cases of HIV infection are due to drug use or unprotected sex. According to surveys carried out in the region, fewer than half of all teenagers reported using condoms when having sex with casual partners; among injecting drug users it is only 20 per cent. As elsewhere, adolescent girls are more susceptible than boys to contracting the HIV virus.

Before the project was launched, an extensive needs assessment was carried out. This provided a detailed inventory of 185 peer education initiatives in the region (most were started by NGOs and work with both young women and young men) and identified technical support needs. The results were revealing. There were few evaluation mechanisms in place, few training manuals, a lack of consistent funding and no knowledge-sharing or support networks.

Based on the assessment, the project took shape as five major interconnected elements: training, developing regional networks, mobilizing national networks, using information technology, and developing peer education training tools.

The project relied on youth-to-youth outreach. “Experience shows that youth-to-youth programmes are much more effective in delivering the right messages on health in general and HIV/AIDS prevention in particular to both in-school and out-of-school youth,” observes Inga Akisamitauskaite, a peer educator and member of Y-PEER from Lithuania. “Once young people are motivated and engaged in fighting STIs [sexually transmitted infections], including HIV, progress in reducing infection rates can be rapid and sustained.”

The training sessions were divided into two categories: training of trainers and training of master trainers. UNFPA organized six basic and two advanced peer education training workshops and four follow-up national training sessions. “Overall,” says Bodiroza, “241 peer education trainers from 27 countries have been trained by the project.”

Training a core of peer educators was only part of the challenge. In order to sustain the process, national peer education networks needed to be established. So far the project has identified and mobilized 185 organizations in 22 countries. National peer education networks were created in Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey and Ukraine.

Using information technologies is an integral part of the Y-Peer network.

The Y-PEER Network has a new web site, www.youthpeer.org, and a distance-learning tool in CD-ROM format. The web site “connects peer educators, facilitates networking and sharing of information and experiences, and provides a vehicle for maintaining personal and professional contacts,” Inga points out.

The Y-PEER Network has collaborated actively on a number of advocacy campaigns and special events. On 1 December 2003, in commemoration of World Aids Day, UNFPA and the Y-PEER Network coordinated a day-long programme of activities that included a two-hour worldwide video conference on the AIDS pandemic. Y-PEER networks in Bulgaria, Romania, Russian Federation and Serbia and Montenegro participated in the event in collaboration with the British Council, MTV, YouthNet, USAID and the World Bank. The video conference, moderated from New York, included the cities of Washington, D.C., Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia and Moscow. The World AIDS Day Campaign was linked to the MTV Staying Alive Web Site in the Russian Federation and culminated in the official launch of the Y-PEER web site.

Y-PEER contributes to the attainment of the ICPD goals—in particular Chapter VII, Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Health—through education, knowledge sharing, advocacy and training.

Fast Fact  

HIV infection rates are rising faster in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia than anywhere else in the world. In 2003, there were 230,000 new infections in the region, bringing the total number of people living with HIV to 1.5 million.

View statistics and indicators for Russian Federation >>

“Y-PEER is just five letters in the Latin alphabet but these letters have changed the lives of many young people living in Eastern Europe and Central Asia,” Inga says proudly. “The peer education network established by UNFPA has allowed us to influence and change behaviour. We cover many topics related to reproductive and sexual health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS and STIs, sexual abuse and violence against women and girls. Thanks to Y-PEER,” she continues, “we have an active web site, electronic mailing lists, training manuals and each other to share information and experiences.”

Though each country needs to institutionalize peer education in their strategies for providing sexual and reproductive health care to adolescents and young people, the building blocks for sustainability have been put in place. Peer educators have reached roughly 1.3 million youth in the entire region. And the number continues to grow.

Y-PEER is already playing a major role in reducing the incidence of STIs and HIV/AIDS among the region’s youth, and increasing awareness of domestic violence and the evils of drug and alcohol abuse, among other issues.

“The programme has really had an impact in communities in Macedonia,” says Marja Vasileva, a peer educator from Skopje. “Y-PEER has made us think differently about health and sexuality issues and how important it is to have a healthy lifestyle and take responsible decisions regarding relationships. Most importantly,” she concludes, “ it has shown how young people can have a positive influence on each other and be forces for change in their communities.”

—Don Hinrichsen

Russian Federation
Population : 145.9 mil
Fertility rate
1.8
Maternal Mortality Ratio
17
Contraceptives prevalence rate
49
Population aged 10-24
15%
Youth secondary school enrollment
Boys 90%
Girls 91%

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