Students take teachers’ place as Red Cross tackles HIV taboo

Russian Red Cross volunteers Alesia (left) and Xenia engage a group of students in Belorechensk in an open discussion about HIV, providing information, discussing prevention and the stigma that comes when testing positive. Andreea Anca, IFRC

By Andreea Anca, IFRC

Sixteen students at the Technical College in the southern Russian town of Belorechensk, arrive to find classmates Alesia, 19, and Xenia, 17 in place of their teacher.

The two students, also Russian Red Cross volunteers of the Belorechensk branch, are ready to run a HIV information and prevention session aimed at breaking the taboo among their peers.  The session provides essential information about the issue and a platform for open discussion. They bring to life an interactive method developed by the Russian Red Cross in Moscow with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), targeting young people aged 15 -23.

Students complete a questionnaire on their understanding of HIV and the people who live with it. Then they hear that an estimated 423 people of the 54,000 residents of their city are registered as HIV positive.

When discussing stigma and discrimination, Dasha, 17, says: “I would feel uncomfortable if I were to sit close to a HIV infected person. It’s an unconscious, gut feeling.” Another student continues along the same lines: “I would shake his/her hand but it would be an insincere handshake.”  

At this stage, the young instructors randomly snatch several small pieces of paper from a pile of individual notes on which the students had written the names of people that matter most to them, their hobbies, and their dreams for the future.

“How do you feel  when the  most important people and things that matter most to you are suddenly no longer there?” asks Alesia, as she tears up the note she grabbed, a gesture meant to demonstrate the sudden sense of loss experienced by people living with HIV when they find out about their condition.

“I never paid attention to the HIV topic before but I’ve just realized that we need to know about this,” says Dasha at the end of the one hour session and completing the final questionnaire, which will reveal whether the sessions has changed her attitude.

The model is replicated across five regions in Russia and used by other Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan respectively, as part of the Regional Health Initiative – the main HIV-related programme in the region.

In 2015, in Belorechensk 1,131 young people took part in the sessions.

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