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Use social media to empower country's youth, urges UNICEF rep

BY TANESHA MUNDLE Observer staff reporter mundlet@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, June 18, 2012    

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INTERVENTION officers providers and youth advocates are being urged to start utilising social media in their efforts to change risky and unacceptable behavioural patterns among young Jamaicans and empower them to reach their fullest potential.

Robert Fuderich, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative to Jamaica, said that while many service providers and advocates are still grappling with the worldwide fascination with social media, its significance and use cannot be understated as it not only creates the space for conversations, but also enables the development of relationships.

"Increasingly, this is the world where young people spend most of their time and where their voices and their self-expression find a comfortable home," he said.

"If we aren't meeting them where they are speaking their language, we will lose the opportunity to connect with young people on their terms. We will lose some of our best opportunities to engage them. These are the spaces with which we must become more comfortable and develop our competencies to better engage the young people," he added.

Fuderich made the remarks at Friday's launch of promotional materials produced under the Strengthening HIV Prevention Effort and Life Skill Among Vulnerable Young Woman Using Information, Communication, and Technology Project at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel in Kingston.

The 18-month project, which was spearheaded by Eve For Life — a non-governmental organisation that supports women living with and affected by HIV/AIDS — and funded by UNESCO, involved 50 women, a number of them HIV-positive, from Eve for Life and the Women's Centre of Jamaica Foundation (WCJF).

Fuderich told the gathering that Eve For Life exemplified how ICT, social media technologies and other creative tools can be used to engage young people who continue to be highly vulnerable to HIV and AIDS.

He said Jamaican girls and young women aged 15-24 were disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS, and that current data show that girls 15-19 were four times more likely to contract the disease than their male counterparts.

Additionally, he said in 2010 the number of newly reported AIDS cases among young girls ages 10 to 19 outnumbered that among boys of the same age group at a ratio of 11:1.

"Against this backdrop, service providers must realise that it will take increased creativity and non-traditional efforts to influence stubborn, risky behaviours," he said, noting that he was encouraged by the results of the project.

He congratulated Eve for Life and the young women who had the courage not only to grow and develop despite their challenges, but also developed messages from what they had learned to share with others.

Eve for Life Executive Director Patricia Watson said it was a proud moment for the entity and pledged to actively utilise the materials in its programmes. She also announced that the materials were being used in a pilot prgramme involving students at a Kingston high school who are considered at high risk of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. The programme is aimed at strengthening HIV prevention, knowledge and life skills of the young women with a view to minimise their vulnerability to HIV.

During the programme, the women participated in monthly skill-building sessions around HIV-related issues, life skills and communication training, and one-on-one counselling, after which they developed messages targeting their peers.

"The idea was that the practical experience of conceptualising and presenting messages would enable the young women to internalise these messages, apply them to their own lives and share them with their peers, and so far it appears that the project was successful in enabling the young women to apply the lessons learned to their own lives," Watson explained.

She said only one pregnancy occurred during the duration of the project, which ran from October 2010 to last March, and one of the participants is now having sessions with young girls in her community.

However, Watson said the project highlighted a number of gaps in parenting, education and the health sector.

"We found that most girls did not have the skills and or knew how to prevent HIV and pregnancy. Only this year a 14-year-old noted that she got pregnant because she was jealous of her 13-year-old cousin who had a baby she thought was cute and cuddly," she disclosed.

"She did not think about the consequences of having a child at her age, or that she would have to wake up and care for the child, change her (diaper), find money to feed and clothe her, nor had she thought about dropping out of school," Watson said, pointing out that another felt that she was too brilliant to get pregnant but was having unprotected sex.

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