Emma Brathwaite is a senior adolescent/youth health technical advisor at the Nossal Institute for Global Health (University of Melbourne) with 10 years of experience in HIV, AIDS, and sexual reproductive health. Her expertise focuses on program design and implementation and operational research for advocacy to develop national HIV responses. She specializes in HIV prevention programming with and for most-at-risk adolescents and youth and HIV and adolescent sexual reproductive health integration.

PLAY peer educators

Millions of young people around the world face very high risks of HIV infection and other negative outcomes. In Asia, 95 percent of new HIV infections among young people are in “key populations at higher risk,” who comprise only 5 percent of young people.[1]

Two behaviors of greatest risk for the transmission of HIV are penetrative sex (vaginal or anal) with multiple partners without using condoms, and sharing used needles and syringes to inject drugs. Unprotected vaginal sex is a risk not only for HIV transmission but also for other sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.[2]

Kamus Peer Educators

The public health response has focused primarily on risk-reduction behavior change models for HIV prevention, which essentially rely on people being willing and able to change their behavior to reduce their own individual risk.

Sound easy? Perhaps not.

We asked young people in Indonesia what they thought. These young people are peer educators. Many of them sell sex and use drugs (sometimes both), and all of them are actively involved in HIV prevention activities.

PSA Peer Educators

They explain that behavior change is not easy. They say it takes time, practice, and patience. Behavior change takes much more than education alone. There are many characteristics of young people that need to be taken into consideration, especially for programs and also for policy. These include age and sex, whether or not they are attending school or work, what type of work, marital status, economic dependence, family relationships (and support), friendships (and peer pressure), and where they live (in urban or rural environments). All of these factors are interconnected, shape how young people act and interact, and can be a source of both risk and protection.

Adi explains: Sometimes you are the student, the son, the friend, sometimes you have to make money for the family – it’s like being an actor, you know. You play different roles all the time and this can be hard when you’re young because there’s so much going on. You’re not a child but you’re also not an adult – but people expect you to make adult decisions but then treat you like a child!

Adolescence is also a period of curiosity, risk-taking, and first-time experimentation with many things, sometimes including drugs and alcohol.

Ayo explains:

Friends have a really big influence on what we do, how we dress, the music we listen to, the type of phone we have…but also on the things you do—like having sex, trying drugs, motorbike racing. It depends on what group you’re hanging with, like punks, emos, b-boys. It’s not like they are pressuring you by saying “hey, try this” but it is the non-verbal pressure to do things, try things, and keep up. Being part of a group is important.

Perception of risk is a very important factor for adopting protective behavior, and it is critical in applying behavior change HIV prevention models.

Yuan explains:

It’s not just the risk behavior you have to think about. Most of us know the risk factors from trainings—unsafe sex, sharing needles. We know this! Everyone tells us “don’t do this, don’t do that!” But when we think about ourselves and our friends and we really think about whether we are at risk, then it becomes a bit personal and much harder. We might know (deep down) that we are in the “risk” category because of something we do, but it’s hard to admit that to ourselves, and admitting that, really knowing your own risk status means you have to make big changes in your life, and sometimes those changes are hard because it means changing who you are.

AYOMI Peer Educators

There remains much we don’t know about what influences risk perception, especially in youth, and the multi-level influences on behavior and health. Currently, the majority of youth HIV prevention programs operate on a series of overlapping assumptions: that young people are able to assess their own risk and know their risk status; that their individual perceptions of risk fit with program definitions of risk; that young people identify as belonging to an “at-risk” population; and that young people are suitably skilled, resourced, and empowered to access relevant services or attempt behavioral changes. As we work toward effective HIV prevention for young people, we also need to consider the following:

  • Adolescent risk behavior is often less fixed than adult behavior.

Karim explains:

Sex and drug use are sometimes experimental and might not continue. Sometimes young people might try something just to see what it’s like—it might be risky but it’s not permanent.

  • Young people are less likely to identify as a member of a high-risk or at-risk group.

Anyes explains:

Because unprotected sex or selling sex might happen only a few times, we think—it’s only this once…it doesn’t mean I am a “sex worker,” it means occasionally it might happen. Even if you do things and you know it’s risky—like injecting drugs—it doesn’t mean you think, “aha, I am an ‘injecting drug user.’” Being part of a group is important for young people in Indonesia but it doesn’t mean we are grouped as injecting drug users or sex workers. There is still a lot of stigma.
  • Young people are more easily exploited and abused.

Karla explains:

Getting clients [of sex workers] to use condoms is very difficult because the clients have all the power. When you first start working, you don’t even know what you’re entitled to, what your rights are, how to negotiate safety, where to get advice. Sometimes clients are violent, and for young people with less experience, it’s hard to know how to get out of the situation safely.

  • Young people are often less willing to seek out services.

Rahma explains:

Even if you know you need to see the doctor or need some advice, actually knowing where to go can be a barrier for some young people. But also, some things are illegal, like pre-marital sex, and so young people worry that if they go to a health service they might get in trouble or they worry that their parents will be informed and they worry they will bring shame to the family.

Aceh Partnerships in Health

The 2006-2008 Aceh Partnerships in Health (APiH) Facility was a health program designed to develop the capacity of local organizations to deliver quality health services. The first phase of the program commenced in February 2006. The facility focused on HIV, adolescent health, disability, policy, mental health, and organizational development. Phase two and phase three of this program continue its work in adolescent health, with a special focus on including HIV prevention in preparation for a coordinated provincial HIV response; HIV prevention among most-at-risk young people (particularly young transgender sex workers, young female sex workers, male street youth, and young drug users); design and implementation of the Life Skills in Schools Program; and a life skills out-of-school program. For further information: click here.

Peer educators: The youth-friendly medical clinic is co-located with a youth drop-in center (considered the headquarters for the peer education groups) and linked to the peer education programs. Together they provide a safe and supportive environment for young people, helping to increase clinic access, fostering positive peer/adult relationships, building HIV knowledge and communication/negotiation skills, and strengthening protective factors for young people. There are four main groups of peer educators connected to this program. All are actively working in Aceh Province in Indonesia. These young people are critical to the success of the program.

All young people involved in this story have given their consent (for photos and narrative). Names have been changed to protect their identity.

For more information, contact Emma Brathwaite: emmacb@unimelb.edu.au


[1] Presented to Mr. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General. Redefining AIDS in Asia: Crafting an Effective Response. Report of the Commission on AIDS in Asia. 2008.

[2] UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (UNICEF ROSA). Guidance Note: HIV prevention among most-at-risk and especially vulnerable adolescents and young people in South Asia. 2009.