Theme: Volunteer Action and HIV and AIDS Prevention
Case study: Vanuatu (non-government organizations, community volunteers)
Summary: The prevalence of HIV is low in many Pacific island countries, but vulnerability factors are on the rise. Because the virus strikes people at their prime, AIDS has the potential to ravage the already fragile economies of this region. Meet the volunteer peer educators who are using drama to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS in Vanuatu.
Lights, Camera, HIV and AIDS Prevention!
200,000 people spread across 83 islands form what a Lonely Planet travel guidebook describes as “The happiest place on earth”. We are in Vanuatu, a country of turquoise waters, coral atolls, torrential rains and the biggest smiles you have ever seen.
But, expert believe Vanuatu and other Pacific island nations are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. This is mainly because of low levels of condom use, coupled with high incidences of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). STIs can increase a person’s risk of becoming infected with HIV. In Vanuatu, studies undertaken in 2000, showed that one in three women tested had an STI, and many of them were young women. As in many other Pacific countries and territories, more than half of Vanuatu’s population is younger than 20. Many of the young people here lack access to youth-friendly information about HIV and AIDS, as well as prevention services.
Young volunteers, or peer educators, working with the highly successful One Smol Bag theatre group, are responding to this urgent need for relevant information by using drama to get their safe-sex message across.
Founded in 1989, One Smol Bag theatre group began with 15 volunteers as part-time actors. Peter Walker, Director of One Smol Bag Theatre, explains they wanted to show that all you need is one small bag, for costumes and props, to spread life-changing information about reproductive and sexual health to women and young people. The performances focus on characters that young people and women can relate to who are facing issues such as teenage pregnancy, maternal health and sexually transmitted diseases. Literacy levels are low in Vanuatu, so the plays allow more women and young people to understand these critical health issues.
In 1997, One Smol Bag’s drama work led to another significant development - the opening of a health clinic and drop-in centre, Kampussum Head. It happened after a six-month community theatre production in Blacksands, a poor urban settlement on the outskirts of Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila. After the production, One Smol Bag volunteers wanted to address, first-hand, the young residents’ lack of access to services. “We recognized that teaching young people about safer sex through our theatrical campaigns risked being lost if they do not have access to further information, and reproductive health services and treatment,” says Peter Walker.
The centre combines a health clinic with a community centre where young people can go for information, counselling or recreation. The non-judgmental atmosphere of the Theatre has been replicated at the clinic and is one of the reasons attributed to its success.
One Smol Bag have gone from strength to strength. Their community theatre work is taking reproductive and sexual health information to villages and towns across Vanuatu; while their televised drama ‘Love Patrol’ is now spreading the word Pacific-wide. But, the driving force behind the work remains the same – the strength and determination of young volunteers to make a difference in their society.
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