Skills for life: teaching young people in Papua about HIV

Yumelina Tabuni is a confident and outgoing 13-year-old girl. She lives with her family in a small village in the Baliem valley, a remote mountainous area of Papua. Every week she attends a life skills session, where young people learn how to protect themselves from HIV and AIDS.

“I didn’t understand what HIV was and why people died from it. I wanted to learn more,” Yumelina says. “Now I know how HIV is transmitted – through sex, needles and blood transfusion – and also how it is not transmitted. We’ve been taught about condoms and how to protect ourselves from HIV. I’m happy that I have this knowledge.”

The village is in a striking landscape with lush green valleys between forested and mist-covered mountainsides. A line of thatched-roof huts climbs the hillside above a wide brown river. Women walk down the road, carrying sacks of sweet potatoes on straps around their foreheads. Pigs wander between the huts.

Yumelina attends high school in a nearby village and has three siblings. Her parents are farmers. They keep pigs and grow several types of crop, including the local staple sweet potato. “I like going to Sunday school and playing football with my friends in the afternoon,” she says. “I play midfield. My favourite football team is Persiwa Wamena.”

Learning and sharing

The life skills group that Yumelina attends is one of many set up by World Relief, with support from UNICEF. It is run by 29-year-old Nira Tabuni, a volunteer from the local community who has an obvious passion for the work. As well as HIV and AIDS, the group also talks about violence, alcohol and drugs.

Nira was first invited to join the group by a friend. “I really liked the session and wanted to pass the information on to my friends in the village,” she says. “Most people here are involved in unprotected sex and are at risk of HIV. I feel that it is my duty to spread this knowledge to my younger brothers and sisters.”


Yumelina takes part in a life skills session with other local girls
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown


Every week, dozens of girls arrive for the life skills sessions, some walking for several hours to get there. In order to tackle the difficulties of the terrain, World Relief also produces one hour radio shows based on the life skills training. They give these to the young people on an MP3 player that they can take back to their villages and listen to with their friends.

Nira also teaches the girls how to make necklaces and bags from recycled plastic and natural materials. They sell these in the villages, giving the girls and young women an extra source of income and promoting self-reliance.

Myth busting

Papua has by far the highest rate of HIV infection in Indonesia, spread mostly through commercial sex and multiple sexual partners. There is a lack of awareness about prevention methods, cultural barriers to condom use, and problems accessing condoms.

More than half the population has never heard of HIV, and even those who have often believe myths about the disease. If someone develops AIDS, villagers often believe this is the result of a curse rather than the HIV virus. As a result, there is a lot of stigma and discrimination, and very little support.

Irene Heidy from World Relief says that talking about HIV is fine, but discussing sex and condoms can be difficult. “UNICEF teaching materials help us to explain these things,” she says. “We run girl-only sessions and try to talk outside the church. The young people are more open and willing to ask questions.”

As well as supporting life skills training, UNICEF has set up youth forums and works on sex education in schools. In West Papua, we are working with the provincial government to develop a youth policy covering various issues including sexual health.


Nira demonstrates the group’s handicrafts
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown


Yumelina’s family lives in a single-room wooden hut, part way up the mountainside. Inside, it is dark and smoky. There are no windows and a fire has been lit for warmth and cooking. Her mother Darmina squats by the fire, stirring a food in a metal pan.

Darmina is clearly proud of her daughter. “I’m very happy that Yumelina is attending the life skills training,” she says with a smile. “I trust Nira and I believe that what she’s teaching is correct. Yumelina has always been a good girl, and is very diligent, but the training has improved her even more.”

Thanks to this programme, teenagers like Yumelina are already improving their chances in life. But HIV continues to pose a serious threat throughout Indonesia. Please donate to UNICEF to help us protect more young people from HIV and AIDS.

The author
Andy Brown is Communication Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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