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“My Friends and I Were Exposed to a Lot of Danger”

Fifteen-year-old Ayenalem Bekel and her friends used to spend their free time at the “Shisha House” and “Khat Bet” in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she lives. Smoking “shisha” (better known by Westerners as hookahs) and chewing on “khat” leaves are popular social practices in East Africa that date back 500 years. Ethiopians, young and old, often gather together to chat about the day while enjoying these recreations.

In certain urban areas of Ethiopia, however, shisha or khat “dens” are often linked with illegal activity, providing a convenient marketplace for stolen goods, drugs, and the commercial sex industry. While spending time in these “bad places,” Ayenalem and her friends would get into fights and take part in activities that increase their exposure to HIV.

But last spring, Ayenalem’s life took a dramatic turn when she was invited to participate in a series of group discussions with other young people in her neighborhood. The initiative, led by EngenderHealth, sought to educate youth in the area about HIV and AIDS and about how certain behaviors involving drugs, sex, and violence can increase their risks of contracting the virus.

“My friends and I were exposed to a lot of danger,” Ayenalem said. “But during the group peer discussion, I learned about how HIV is transmitted. I also learned how to respond to peer pressure and what to do when I feel angry, instead of letting my frustration out by fighting with other students.”

Run in partnership with two local groups (HIWOT Ethiopia and Raeye Ethiopia), the group discussions are part of a broader initiative, the Most At Risk Populations (MARPs) Program. True to its name, MARPs (which is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development) is a comprehensive HIV prevention initiative aimed at preventing HIV among vulnerable and marginalized populations in Ethiopia’s urban centers.

The discussions also help to quell fears among young people about getting tested for HIV and to encourage them to identify their dream and the path for achieving it. Today, Ayenalem spends her free time playing football and dreams of one day becoming a dancer.

The peer group discussions also allow participants to talk openly about the broader challenges of being young in urban Ethiopia, including issues of gender equality. After completing the discussions, participants have reported improved relationships with their families and communities, along with the adoption of positive behaviors that lower their risk of HIV. For Ayenalem, the intervention has made her more confident and self-aware.

“I’m peaceful now because I’ve been able to stay away from my former friends at bad places,” Ayenalem added. “I can say that I have good behavior now and I would like to tell my friends about the risks of HIV and AIDS. This way they, too, can be careful.”

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