Peer educators & ‘life savers’ - breaking taboos in rural Bosnia

For the past six years, 18-year-old Dejan Krstic has been answering questions from primary school students that many of their parents are avoiding. With no sexual and reproductive health information offered within the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) school curricula and limited communication on this topic between young people and their parents, World Vision BiH peer educators like Dejan are tackling the challenge of breaking taboos that could cost lives.Questions about puberty, physical changes in sexual organs and HIV and AIDS are never easy to answer, but Dejan is one of 43 World Vision peer-educators in BiH that is striving to do exactly that.

I knew HIV existed but had no idea what it was“The topic that we deal with is still taboo in rural areas in which we live”, says Dejan, serious and soft spoken, as he explains his experience with World Vision\'s peer-educator project for sexual and reproductive health which in mid-August took him to the small Bosnian town of Fojnica for a five-day World Vision Summer Camp on Sexual and Reproductive Health for peer educators.

“During my first presentations, whenever I mentioned the topic, children would get embarrassed. But afterwards, they would slowly start participating and asking for new information. We have all learned very much compared to what we knew before”, remembers Dejan.

And what they knew before was very limited. Data gathered through the “Partnership in prevention and fight against HIV and AIDS in BiH“ pilot project implemented in 2006, have shown that, while an alarming 7% of primary school students is sexually active, their knowledge on sexual and reproductive health was extremely low. Testing conducted prior to the start of the project revealed incorrect answers for all questions around reproductive organs.

As education on sexual and reproductive health is non-existent in the school curricula, young people use media as the only source of information which can be quite misleading and limited and often leads to high-risk behaviour.

Last September, the Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted the National Strategy for Sexual and Reproductive Health in order to introduce a course on Sexual and Reproductive Health into the school curricula. Almost a year on however the plan is yet to be enacted.

In schools, children always ask us when the peer educators will come again”Through our network of 43 peer educators we decided to partly bridge this gap. Our educators work with the eighth and ninth graders, offering them their knowledge related to sexual and reproductive health“, says Denis Siljak, World Vision Project Manager adding that “the success of the whole project is clearly seen in the simple fact that around 3.500 primary school students from nine schools have attended the presentations so far”.

Siljak praises peer-educators and their work: “The seriousness and quality of their work has also been acknowledged by the high school principals who want our peer educators to organise presentations for teachers as well“.

“I literally didn\'t know anything about sexual and reproductive health before starting this project. For example, I knew HIV existed but had no idea what it was”, says Adrijana Spasojevic, another 18-year-old peer-educator who started giving presentations in 2007. She adds, “When I go to primary schools, I see that children there are very interested in what we do”.

Nine teachers from each of the primary schools where presentations are held are also helping peer educators as part of the project and the teachers are already witnessing positive changes.

“Students are left delighted after the presentations. Our biology teacher is more than impressed by the knowledge they acquire through this project”, explains primary school teacher Sabina Jasarevic from Visoko, also a mother of two; a daughter who is in the seventh grade and son who is in the eighth grade. She believes that children are more receptive to some information when it is received from their peers.

And children are eager to learn more. As Sabina puts it “In schools, children always ask us when the peer educators will come again”.

Peer education is one key component of World Vision\'s broader health programming in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which aims to ensure all children enjoy good health and are cared for, protected and participating in their communities.