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Cornell University group collaborates with UNICEF To prevent HIV/AIDS by enlisting world's young people

The number of young adults infected with HIV/AIDS – almost 12 million globally – is staggering, as is the number of AIDS orphans (11 million), expected to double by 2010. To enlist the help more effectively of the world's young people to help protect other youth, a group from Cornell University is collaborating with UNICEF's international project, "What Every Adolescent Has a Right to Know."

Two campus groups, the Cornell Participatory Action Research Network (CPARN) and Cornell HIV/AIDS Education Project, recently joined forces as Cornell Right to Know (RTK) to assist in planning and conducting participatory action research (PAR) with youth. The new group is composed of more than 50 Cornell students, staff and faculty working with 14 countries to help UNICEF identify the best ways to develop effective HIV education strategies and to improve programs and policies, including young people in the process. The hope is to give adolescents the life skills required to reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection and to respond to the varied causes and consequences of the epidemic.

Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF and Cornell's 2002 Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellow, met with the Cornell group on March 4 during her visit to campus. The group explained to Bellamy that PAR addresses social problems within their local contexts, unlike much social science research that seeks to be acontextual. In this case, the PAR approach will involve youth groups in each country in the planning and implementation process.

"We want to find ways that bring youth to the table," said David Pelletier, director and principal investigator of the Cornell RTK Project and Cornell professor of nutrition policy. He pointed out that when young people are involved in the planning, they have much more invested in the project and thus help get the word out to their peers. Jennifer Tiffany, the project director for the Cornell RTK Project and director of the Cornell Parent HIV/AIDS Education Project, explained that the effort will build on Cornell's very successful program for parents and guardians, "Talking With Kids About HIV/AIDS," that has been implemented throughout New York state, replicated in Mexico City and used in various ways in 70 countries.

Cornell RTK's role is to develop a flexible PAR protocol that each of the participating countries – including Haiti, Ghana, Niger, Macedonia, Zambia, India, Malawi and Thailand – can adapt to its needs.

RTK is based on the premise that young people (whether or not they are HIV positive) have the right to participate in decisions that affect them, to know the basic facts of HIV/AIDS, to protect themselves, and to get emotional and psychological support.

Keiko Goto, a Cornell graduate student from Japan in international nutrition, said that when she visited Tanzania, she became increasingly interested in how the PAR approach could influence young women to negotiate with their partners. "Also, PAR allows youths to see themselves as peer educators so they not only get information but give information to others."

Sue-Ann Foster, a Cornell senior from Barbados majoring in anthropology, said she spent a semester last year in South Africa. "I was shocked at how uninformed I had been, and decided I wanted to be part of the educational process."

Foster is helping to write the introduction to the Right to Know protocol document being developed by the Cornell RTK working group.

By 2005, the Cornell RTK group hopes to have developed resources supporting a global initiative on mobilizing young people against HIV/AIDS in at least 25 countries.


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