Engaging Youth in HIV/STI Prevention and Advocacy

youth_prevention_programIn 1999, The Women’s Collective (TWC) inaugurated its youth programming with an intervention for D.C. youth focused on increasing skills and knowledge around HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention and encouraging positive choices to decrease risky behavior. As our capacity grew over time, we added additional interventions that expanded our program focus to include nurturing healthy and frank communication around our bodies; providing broader reproductive and sexual health education; building the capacity of girls and young women to use their voices to be social change agents and to advocate for themselves, their peers, and their community; and exploring issues of self‐esteem, self‐worth, and interpersonal dynamics.

The high prevalence of HIV and STIs in D.C. makes working with youth to build their skills around sexual and reproductive health, with an emphasis on HIV/STI prevention, absolutely critical. Further, lack of access to regular health care, lagging comprehensive sexual health education in schools, early sexual début, older sexual partners among youth (>18), stigma, and lack of socio-cultural support structures are some of the factors affecting rising HIV and STD infection rates among youth. The lack of knowledge, skills, and structural support—coupled with the high level of risky behavior in which young women are engaged—underlies the importance of this program.

Our current youth leadership initiative serves urban, low‐income, at‐risk Black girls and young women and young men with four interactive group interventions. The overarching goals of our program are to support girls and young women in identifying and nurturing their internal strengths and in developing their abilities to become leaders among their peers.  Our youth program does this with the work with the ultimate goal of building life-long skills to improve and protect the overall health and well‐being of D.C. youth.

We currently engage in three programs geared towards youth and young adults. Friendly Reminders Everyone Needs To Know About Social, Emotional, Sexual and Physical Health (F.R.E.S.H.) is a TWC-designed community-level intervention that promotes healthy decision making, self-empowerment, and leadership skills and encourages youth to be peer educators. Between Us Girls (BUG) promotes the development of improved knowledge of sexual and reproductive health with an emphasis on HIV/STI prevention and that aims to support healthy relationships, improve communication, negotiation, and improve decision-making. Sisters Informing Healing, Living and Empowering (SIHLE) is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) group-level intervention. It is a peer-led, social-skills training aimed at reducing HIV sexual risk behavior.

We also have a twice-yearly Intergeneration event.  This event was developed in response to a need we recognized through our work with youth and adults: we identified the intrinsic value creating a safe and informative space to include adult participants in our youth-focused programming, as many young people were relying on inaccurate sexual and reproductive information from their peers. We created an intergenerational intervention aimed at working with female family units or kinship networks in order to strengthen discussions on how to break the silence on many “taboo” topics within the Black community, such as stigma, sexual orientation, rape, and gender‐based violence. In 2012, we expanded one of our initiatives to include and bolster the participation of boys and young men as in meaningful ways.

As our work with youth continues to grow and evolve, we look forward to sharing the issues faced by youth, as well as the challenges we face and successes that we achieve in working for and with youth and young adults to improve their overall health and wellbeing.

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