Educators are using the comraderie of the sports field to spread the message that safe sex will prevent HIV and AIDS.
"Because the youths are in the slums with nothing to do, soccer gives them something to do, brings them together, gets them to share ideas. And we can give them information about HIV/AIDS," says Anne Owiti, executive director of the Kibera Community Self-Help Program.
Kibera is the name of the Nairobi slum where the UNICEF-sponsored program has been in place for five years to help children affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Kenya. One-fifth of the approximately 2.2 million people of that country live with HIV, and at least 50,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS, according to UNICEF.
The program, with the acronym KICOSHEP, is designed to help these orphans with housing, schooling and health. Sports is one very effective way to reach boys and girls, Owiti says, "because the youth are active and can do sports together."
KICOSHEP has about 30 young people as counselors who are trained to teach their peers about HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves.
"They are remarkable young people, mostly orphans themselves," says Owiti. And they're highly motivated to help their fellow teens, she adds.
The counselors organize the soccer games and, during breaks, talk to other kids about the importance of safe sex. According to UNICEF officials, the majority of children are uneducated and easily influenced by their highly promiscuous culture, where sexual activity can start as early as 10 years old.
So the counselors explain the dangers of HIV and try to persuade the boys to abstain from early sexual activity. Barring that, they urge them to use condoms and to be faithful to one girl as a way to minimize the risk of spreading AIDS.
Korinne Woods, senior communications officer for UNICEF in New York City, says, "A sport like soccer that has the power to reach young people also has the power to protect their lives."
Playing sports, often impossible in war-torn parts of the world or in places like Kibera, where much of the social fabric has been stripped away by AIDS, is also a way for children to retrieve a sense of normalcy, Woods adds.
"Playing a sport can give them back their childhood," she says, as well as become a forum for giving them health information they need.
To take advantage of that power, this year's World Cup soccer tournament, which got under way yesterday, has been dedicated to children, she says.
"The ability to reach people will have a big, global platform," Woods says, adding that UNICEF is very proud that the World Cup organizers chose to dedicate the games to such a worthy cause.
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