Transitions: Community Participation
Volume 14, No. 3, April 2002
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After I was trained, I began to sense a significant change in myself. I now feel free and much lighter, as if someone has taken a huge weight off my shoulders that I could no longer bear.
- Mélanie Azagba
My name is Mélanie Azagba. I was born in 1979 in Pama, Kompienga Province. This small province borders Togo and Benin. Life is good and many people come here from other countries for hunting or tourism or looking for work. Small businesses spring up—to sell water and other things, including commercial sex, to foreigners.
The attitudes displayed by some foreigners plunge our young people into an entirely different way of life, which is "live your own life, do whatever you want and let your personality blossom." In 1995, at the age of 15, I adopted this philosophy. I began to live as I pleased, without worrying about anything. I smoked, drank all kinds of alcohol, and gave myself easily to any man who seemed to have money. I even turned to commercial sex work.
I made quite a bit of money, which allowed me to buy what I needed. I also had to have abortions because of unwanted pregnancies, and I became tired and weak. My health was no longer very good after two years of fast living and debauchery. I started to ask myself a thousand questions about my condition and my way of life. I had to change, but how? I didn't see how I could do it. I couldn't stop living a life of leisure and selling myself to men who gave me a little money in exchange for sex. What was I to do, especially when people started talking about sexually transmitted infections and AIDS?
This worried me, day in and day out. One day, as I went to visit one of my girlfriends, I saw a huge crowd in the street, listening to two speakers talking about STIs and HIV/AIDS. What a lucky break for me! They talked about the virus, how it is transmitted, and how to stop it. There was also something I had heard lots of talk about—the opuntuagu (condom). I spent so much time listening that I decided not to visit my girlfriend after all.
A few days later, I ran into the organization's president, whom I knew well. I talked with him at length about sexual and reproductive health issues, and he convinced me to become a peer educator. After I was trained, I began to sense a significant change in myself. I now feel free and much lighter, as if someone has taken a huge weight off my shoulders that I could no longer bear.
I spend almost all my time, whenever the occasion presents, talking about family planning, STIs, HIV/AIDS, and female circumcision. My friends have nicknamed me "Mélanie Sida" (Sida = AIDS in French). I also organize educational discussions and home visits at least five times a month. I hit almost all social levels—young and old, government employees, ordinary people and people who work on the shady side of the law. Because of how much I do, people often ask me whether I am paid for my work as a peer educator.
Many people who are embarrassed to ask questions in public knock on my door. I always do my best to get to the bottom of their problems. Many of the people who talk with me are youth (girls and boys) who have turned to prostitution and have no one to talk to. Sometimes they want to get out of prostitution. At other times, they come because they are afraid that they might be carrying the HIV virus. To test my role as a peer educator and to see whether my message is getting through, a health services friend lets me know when people, especially women, come to get contraceptive devices. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction, and encourages me to continue to help my community and to promote changes in behavior.
Nowadays youth come to our association for information on sexual and reproductive health. This did not used to happen before the youth partnership program.
- Youth-serving professional
My name is Issoufou Zampaligré. I was born in 1964, in Bittou, Boulgou Province. I am the President of the Association des Jeunes pour le Développement de la Region de Bittou (AJDRB, the Young People's Association for the Development of the Bittou Region). In July 1999, we held the first community participation workshop for the reproductive and sexual health of young people. Mwangaza Action selected Bittou and AJDRB for this opportunity.
This workshop, a first for us, was difficult, because the subjects were new to us. Talking candidly and without embarrassment about sex and male and female genitalia was new for us. It was also the first time we had the opportunity to sit down with people who were very knowledgeable about the subject. We found all of this extremely difficult on the first day of the workshop, but after the ice-breaking exercises, we gradually began to feel at home. Everyone easily found something in his/her own thoughts and experience for preparing our first educational pamphlet.
The program first transformed the organizers who were responsible for its implementation. Because of the social campaigns we are carrying on, my colleagues and I have changed our own behavior such that some people no longer recognize us. We have become trusted sources of information in the city, to the point where even a minor error on our part would be serious. All the young people, the adults, and even old women are encouraging us and asking other young people to follow our example. In our meetings, all the members of the association can express themselves openly and without embarrassment, and these meetings attract real crowds. Before the program, sex among the youth of Bittou was something never publicly discussed.
Now, the community, the government, and outside activists ask the association for advice and assistance. Beyond that, people in the community call us "savior," which is extremely gratifying and increases our enthusiasm to make an even greater effort on behalf of our community. This program is our pride and joy. It has made it possible for us to achieve more than we ever thought we could.
* Advocates gratefully acknowledges Tom Clark who translated these articles from French into English.
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Transitions (ISSN 1097-1254) © 2002, is a quarterly publication of Advocates for Youth—Helping young people make safe and responsible decisions about sex. For permission to reprint, contact Transitions' editor at 202.419.3420.
Editor: Sue Alford