In a couple of days I am finally starting my first real project. That’s a weighty statement when you consider that I’ve been here for nine months (!), that I live in Armenia and not my own sweet motherland, that I will be executing said project in a language I can barely speak.
The Project: “Youth Empowerment and Action for HIV/AIDS Awareness and Prevention”. Last week a coworker, my director and I travelled to four schools to interview prospective peer educators. In a couple of days we will get those students together to train them on training their peers on HIV/AIDS and will later take them actually give the trainings themselves in villages all around Armenia.
What this has meant to me so far: First my head is spinning around in a haze of grant paperwork, curriculum writing, coworker coordination, and logistics of getting students from their villages here and back again.
More interestingly, this has gotten me into tricky cultural territory of HIV/AIDS. Most of the information given out on HIV/AIDS in this country is about drug use. A booklet prepared by one NGO presents stories of persons living with HIV accompanied by photos of these men and women with masks on their faces. There were stories about twenty or so persons living with HIV/AIDS. All of them were infected in some way through drug use. Drug use! It’s true, needles are bad! But not one mention of sex in the whole book. Most of the material I’ve come across done by NGO’s talks much more about the easy black-and-white of drug use and less about the terrifyingly grey area of sex.
(Disclaimer: way to go NGO’s for teaching about HIV/AIDS! Progressive and growing more so. And I feel very supported by the NGO I’m working with. But writing the actual curriculum has been a trip.)
A recent conversation:
I say, “So, in the states we think knowledge is power. The more you know the better you can protect yourself. So, when talking about ways of transmission, I assume I can talk about sex.”
My Armenian coworker, “Well, you’re not going to TALK about sex, right? You’re just going to tell them that that’s a way you can get it.”
“Well, I’m not going to tell them how to have sex, but I think I would mention contraceptives like condoms. Can I talk about condoms?”
“Yes. You can say ‘condoms’.”
“But maybe it wouldn’t be ok to show them how to use it.”
“You know, in American high schools they take out bananas and do demonstrations.”
“Well, I don’t think that in the village kids are even thinking about these kinds of things.”
“Yes. They are too young. They aren’t doing these kinds of things.”
“Well, can I talk to them about other ways to protect themselves? What about female condoms?”
“No. I think ‘condoms’ is enough.”
“What about telling them that it’s possible to transmit HIV and other STD’s through oral sex?”
“No. Seriously. Kids aren’t doing these kinds of things. And most of them will get married and can deal with these things then. You know, there’s an idea that if you tell kids about these things, they will have it in their imaginaiton and then they will do them.”
“I see what you’re saying. But I’ve seen things that come on tv when little six and seven year-olds are running around the room. You don’t think that when those six or seven year-olds… get older… they will feel something that will spur on their imaginations anyway.”
“Well, maybe… but we don’t need to put these things there. Plus then we’ll have parents calling us and saying, ‘What are you doing with our students in these classes.'”
“Ok… I see what you’re saying. So, I will say, ‘You can get HIV through sex. You can keep from getting HIV through sex if you use a condom.’ And done.”
Now, these kinds of conversations are going on, and I’m having my own imaginings. I’m remembering my high school health teacher throwing a contraceptive sponge at my head. Scenes of Pleasantville come to mind as well. And I’m wondering how its possible that in the same country where, on multiple occasions, young boys have tried to show me porn on their phones, those same young people are not really thinking about having sex. One even graphically communicated that he’s had sex eight times. They offered to help me find sex. Surely they are thinking about it.
That said, I’m thrilled to be teaching soon. My Armenian coworker and I have been preparing for a long while and working with him has been great. We’re playing a lot of games, and the main idea behind our training is that youth can be proactive in protecting their communities against HIV/AIDS. I can get behind that even if I’m not allowed to say ‘female condom’.